Father hugging disabled son as they ride a ferry boat

Tourists in electric wheelchairs on Parliament Hill. Ottawa, Ontario. Canada.When people talk about what’s important to them or what they want to do when they retire, so many people talk about wanting to travel. If you and your spouse — or your parent or your BFF or your kids — always talked about that trip you were going to take someday, disabilities don’t have to stop you from living your dreams. Sure, it takes extra planning, but there are resources and experts out there to help. Plus, the things that go wrong are part of the adventure, right?


Group of beach wheelchairs on sand with palm trees on backgroundEurope is known for narrow streets with stairways and tiny elevators, but there are plenty of people with disabilities living full, enriching lives there. How do they do it? Oftentimes, downtowns have accommodations that may not be obvious until you look for them. There may be an elevator accessible only to people with disabilities, a more private bathroom in the back, a temporary ramp to unfurl, wheelchairs to borrow, and people to assist you to fill the gaps. Local tourism offices are a great resource.


STARBRITE Traveler: A Travel Resource For Parents Of Children With Special Needs

Plan the best vacation for everyone in your family Identify special provisions and accessibly for your child with special needs

Many caregivers find establishing a routine to be critical — traveling throws that out the window. Going to new places, talking to new people, eating new foods, and staying in an unfamiliar bed can cause considerable anxiety, even before we factor in adjusting medication schedules and preparing for special diets.

Jessi Jones retired from her job as a special education teacher with a MSW to co-found Abeon Travel. She and her partner help families accommodate sensory issues and prepare anxious travelers for what to expect each step of the way. While every hotel is required to comply with ADA requirements, Jessi helps families find hotels and attractions that go beyond the minimum requirements — from braille menus to staff dedicated to making sure everyone has a good time.


Louie Clay travels fairly regularly, so he knows to let the security screeners know about his pacemaker. As a 78 year old man who uses a walker, screeners generally understand that he is physically disabled without having to ask. Except when they don’t.

Louie Clay raising his arms as high as he can

Louie is ready to comply with security procedures, but cannot remove his shoes while standing or raise his arms higher than shown above.

When he was unable to lift his arms high enough to satisfy a TSA official, they ordered him to take off his shoes. Officers refused to provide a chair for him to sit in, although he’s unable to bend down to untie his shoelaces. While the TSA has policies in place for travelers who are elderly and/or disabled, these do not appear to have been followed.

Not only did he nearly miss his flight, despite having given himself an hour to get through security, he was treated with contempt simply for being disabled. He received no response to the complaint he filed with the TSA.

Airport security and airline staff have made public missteps in how they’ve treated people with disabilities and their traveling companions. There are plenty of happy endings, too. United Airlines recently had a special ‘flight’ for children with autism. They were brought through security, boarded a plane, and pretended to fly in a program designed to help kids get used to flying. The idea is that, now that they’ve done it, going back to an airport will be less stressful and more fun.

As Susan Sygall, of Mobility International USA, said to Rick Steves “Bring along an extra pair of pants and a great sense of humor.”

Really, that’s good advice for all of us.

Tips for travel

  1. Call ahead. Places may be able to accommodate disabilities with advance notice. Accessible rooms may be limited in number. With enough planning, you can work around these issues.
  2. Talk to your treatment team ahead of time. Your doctor may have tips for managing a long flight, provide extra medications, or other helpful suggestions.
  3. Use a travel agent specializing in accessible travel if your trip is long or complex. There are many tour companies that specialize in accessible travel opportunities.
  4. Give yourself extra time. Airport personnel should be versed in assisting travelers with disabilities, but it’s not safe to assume they will be.
  5. Plan your route. Local guides can help you find routes around town that eliminate inclines or can arrange for whatever transportation needs arise.
  6. Know your rights. Being flexible doesn’t mean accepting mistreatment.

Need some inspiration? Check out the Disabled Travelers Guide to the World for some pictures — and tips — that will have you booking a flight in no time!

Written by Michelle Daly

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  1. Yes! We had more fun then before he was disabled. We made great memories in challenging times. Take a cruise! Let the good times roll!

  2. Be prepared for the worst at all times. Food, sleeping arrangements, medicines everything!!!!!!

  3. The TSA doint the inspection of the elderly man is so typical of things I have heard and seen. Inexcusable!

  4. We took our adult son to Hawaii in June 2014, for a ‘Celebration Vacation’. He’d made so much progress, and was finally able to use a foldable titanium wheelchair instead of the huge, cumbersome power chair he’d been in… so flying was much easier!! I am a hopeless planner, so had reservations made and was pretty much packed 6 months before we left!!! Had a few glitches (like the van we contracted with to transport us from the airport to the hotel… Yes, it had a lift, but no air conditioning and the windows didn’t open!!), but in the end, it was a vacation to remember!! He even got to SURF!!!! An amazing organization, AccesSurf, is a non-profit that tries to get as many folks with various disabilities into the healing ocean!! Surfing was never something on my son’s bucket list, but he’s SO very happy that he got to experience it!! For traveling, I think planning, planning, planning is most important. Just think of all the things you take for granted at home, all the things you already have in place, and figure out how to manage those things in a strange place. It CAN be done, for sure!!!

    • That’s fantastic! I’m so glad you were able to get out and have fun. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about AccesSurf.


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