Traveling with a Disability

It's August and everyone is ready to hit the road, or the air, or the rails. A summer break from the routine of life’s challenges is a right that many Americans take for granted, but it is not so simple for Americans with disabilities to exercise that right. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into effect over twenty years ago, the United States has become a much friendlier landscape for people with disabilities. Still, for people who use crutches, walkers or wheelchairs, travelling can be quite a challenge.  

I use a wheelchair and I have travelled to more than half the states and three foreign countries. I love to travel! Every trip is different, and every trip is an adventure. Probably the most challenging trip I took was when I went alone to Italy. Yes, there were cobblestone streets and buildings without ramps or elevators in Florence and Rome, but nothing was as difficult to maneuver as the waterways of Venice. Depending on the tide, the Vaporetto (water-bus) could be an 18 inch step up or 18 inch drop down, and there were really no alternative ways to travel around the city. Each island only housed several shops and restaurants. Luckily, the crew members were all trained in helping me in and out of the boat, and my trip was an overall success. Here I share some tips for people with disabilities and their families as they head out on summer vacation.

Airplanes do not have the same accessibility requirements as other public accommodations. When has an airplane aisle ever exceeded 36 inches across (which is the standard for most pathways)? You should be aware of the regulations airlines do follow to make it easier for passengers with disabilities to fly: 

  • For aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats: at least half of the armrests on aisle seats must be movable to facilitate transfers; carriers must ensure passengers with disabilities can readily obtain seating in those rows.
  • For aircraft with 100 or more seats: priority space in the cabin must be provided for stowage of at least one folding wheelchair.
  • For aircraft with more than one aisle: at least one accessible lavatory must be available and allow a passenger using an on-board wheelchair to enter, maneuver and use the facilities with the same degree of privacy as other passengers.[1]

Wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments who board a plane with an accessible bathroom will still need flight attendant assistance to get to the restroom. However, I have only encountered one plane with an accessible bathroom in the hundreds of flights I have taken. So, I plan trips with frequent layovers to avoid a problem while traveling long distances by air. Also, I always request a window seat. By sitting in the window seat, I am not in the way of other, able bodied passengers, who might need to get up and climb over me, since I can’t move my legs and feet.

Once at your destination, you may face other challenges. Whether you prefer a hotel room with a roll-in shower or a tub with a bench, many hotels may follow the letter of the law when designing an ADA room, but that does not mean they use common sense. For example, I cannot count how many times I have arrived at a hotel room to find a tub with a removable shower chair that is too flimsy to hold anyone over the age of 10, or a roll-in shower with the bench placed up against the same wall as the temperature controls. The controls jab a user in the back. Other hotel problems I have frequently encountered include:

  • thick, soft carpeting that is hard to push through,
  • high beds that make transferring difficult,
  • access to conference rooms via the freight elevator only, and
  • inaccessible thermostats.

While all of these hotel issues are a nuisance to travelers with disabilities, the biggest problem in my opinion is the lack of understanding among hotel staff. Knowledgeable hotel staff can help solve unanticipated access problems, but they are hard to find.

Travelers with disabilities also face challenges getting around town. Often, a traveler with a disability must call well in advance for an accessible airport shuttle or taxi. Many cities, especially on the east coast, were built long before accessibility was ever a consideration. You will often find structural barriers including:

  • no curb cuts,
  • stairs to enter old buildings,
  • sidewalks in disrepair, and
  • no audio signals for people who are blind at crosswalks.

While these barriers do not just affect tourists, locals with disabilities have had a chance to devise alternative solutions to these inconveniences. So, ask the locals for advice on accessible routes.

When people with disabilities aren’t able to travel, everyone loses. Travel does not only affect vacationers. As globalization increases, employers are looking for workers who are willing to attend business meetings and industry conventions across the country and the world. Without the ability to travel, people with disabilities will always have a barrier to equal opportunity.

Ben has worked at New Editions since 2007 on disability employment and community living technical assistance projects. He currently works in our call center assisting truck drivers with disabilities to maintain employment. In his spare time, he travels!


[1] Guide to the Air Carrier Access Act. (2011). Retrieved February 1, 2012, from