SCI Forum Reports
Traveling with SCI
June 6, 2000
Whether you're dealing with hotels, airlines, or travel agents, "be up front about your disability," said Norma Nickols, a wheelchair user and seasoned traveler. "Be sure you've given them the whole story well ahead of time."
For ten years, Nickols and her partner Carol Lee Power have been operating Access for Travel, a consulting firm that provides training and information about travelers with disabilities to the travel industry.
Nickols and Power created a "Profile for Traveler with a Disability" form which compiles detailed travel-related information about a person's disability, such as wheelchair type and dimensions, extent of assistance needed on or off various modes of transportation, car rental accommodation requirements, lodging preferences, bathroom needs, and more. Originally developed for travel agents, Nickols says that people with disabilities also find it helpful. "This is a tool you should keep with you when you make plans for travel," she said. "It helps remind you to ask - 'How high is the toilet? How wide is the doorway?'" ( Download the "Profile for Traveler with a Disability" form in PDF format using Adobe Acrobat Reader.)
Nickols' first rule of air travel is: plan ahead and get there early. Let the airline know if you'll need an aisle chair (a narrow chair provided by the carrier that can fit through the aisles of the plane), if you'll need help with transfers, and what you want done with your personal wheelchair.
"You can take your chair right up to the door of the plane" before transferring to an aisle chair, said Nickols. Aisle chairs have tiny wheels and cannot be propelled by the user. Since airline personnel may have little experience with these chairs, travelers may have to remind them to lock the brakes during transfers.
The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits disability discrimination in air travel, and familiarity with the Act can help travelers get the services they are entitled to. Because Nickols is a frequent traveler, she often knows more about the Act than the airline personnel, and knows she is within her rights when she demands that her collapsible wheelchair be stored in the cabin. Nickols recommended the PVA booklet, The Air Carrier Access Act: Make it Work for You , available free from PVA Publications, 801 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20006; 800-796-4327.
"Cruise companies are finally recognizing that people with disabilities are interested in travel," said Power."Most new ships have accessible cabins."
Nickols cautioned, however, that each traveler must ask what the company means by "accessible" to determine whether it will meet his or her specific requirements.
Amtrak provides accessible train travel and discounts to travelers with disabilities. For information about Amtrak's services, contact Amtrak at 800-USA-RAIL or via email at email@example.com, and ask for their booklet entitled Access Amtrak.
When looking for a travel agent, Nickols and Power recommend checking for professional qualifications such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) affiliation and CTC (Certified Travel Consultant) certification. These credentials assure consumers that the agent or agency is competent, but do not guarantee any expertise with disabled traveling. "Ask them about their experience," said Power, who also looks for clues when visiting and agent's office. "Does the agency have accessible parking? Can you get into the entrance easily?" If not, they aren't sensitive to travelers with mobility limitations.
A state disabled parking permit can sometimes be used in other states and even some foreign countries. "In some places, like New York City and Washington, DC, you must use their particular permit," said Nickols, who recommends that people call the tourist information bureaus in the states they will be visiting and ask about permit reciprocity and applications. (To find out about accessible parking in Washington State, call the Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, 360-438-3168.)
Accessible travel information for a specific area of the country can be obtained by calling directory assistance (800-555-1212) and asking for the toll-free number of the tourist and convention bureau of the city or state where you will be traveling.
In the second part of the evening, Brom and Anne Wikstrom showed slides of their travels in the U.S., Europe, South America, New Zealand, and Australia. Brom, who has tetraplegia, approaches travel with an adventurous spirit, a lively curiosity, and a sense of humor. Whether he is getting hoisted up the narrow steps of an ancient Peruvian city or he's river rafting in Colorado, his travel motto is "go with the flow."
A love of the outdoors often brings Brom and Anne to the many beautiful trails featured in the Washington Accessible Outdoor Recreation Guide, a free booklet published by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (800-233-0321). Sol Duc Hot Springs, located in Olympic National Park, is also a favorite spot. The resort features wheelchair accessible hot springs and cabins (360-327-3583 for reservations).
Anne and Brom traveled to Alaska on the Alaska State Ferry. In order to get an accessible cabin, Brom and Anne had to book six months ahead. Contact the Alaska Marine Highway System at 800-642-0066.
A favorite getaway is Inland Lake (also called Loon Lake) in British Columbia. Located 12 kilometers north of the town of Powell River at the top of the Sunshine Coast, a five-hour drive from Vancouver, this campground boasts a 14 kilometer accessible trail system and a few very rustic cabins available only to persons with disabilities.
It's a long trip (two days and two ferries from Seattle), but Brom says it's worth it. "We spent a few fabulous days, but I could've stayed four weeks." For information, contact the Powell River Visitors Bureau , 4690 Marine Ave., Powell River, BC, V8A 2L1, Canada; 604-485-4701..
Visiting the sites of Washington, DC, was easy for Brom and Anne because "all the museums are right there on the Mall and the subway system is absolutely incredible," he said. "You can get all the way up to the top of the Washington Monument, but the windows are high." He was given a periscope to see the view out the windows.
All the museums in the nation's capital are free, and all the new memorials are completely accessible, according to Brom, who recommended that visitors "make the extra effort to meet with a congressman and express your interests. It's always made a big difference to us."
Brom and Anne briefly mentioned some of the American cities they have visited. To cope with the hills of San Francisco, "I highly recommend taking a power chair," Brom said. He thought Florida was "great, very accessible, except lots of the rides (in amusement or theme parks) weren't wheelchair friendly." New Orleans is "beautiful, but not the easiest place" for wheelchairs because so much of it is below sea level, causing sidewalks to buckle.
Brom is an artist by profession and a passionate museum visitor. His number one tip for visiting art museums in Paris is "to get there before the doors open, and go immediately to the top floor," thereby avoiding the crowds.
Venice was "probably the biggest surprise," Brom said. "We expected not to be able to get around. But a passenger ferry goes up and down the grand canal."
A number of Venice's foot bridges over the canals have lifts. "We stopped at the tourist office and they gave us a key to use the lifts," Anne said. "But 90% of them were broken. It's better to use the water taxis and get on and off where you want."
Brom also showed slides of his travels to Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, Florence and Brussels. "All cities in Europe have big central squares with a cathedral," Brom said. "Those are great places to sit around, see people, and watch performances." Florence was particularly accessible since many of the streets are closed to motor vehicles. "Our (Washington State) handicapped parking permit came in really handy there," he said.
Brom and Anne recommend finding out as much as possible about local accessible transportation in foreign cities before leaving on a trip. Even so, they noted, "Sometimes this seems impossible. We asked everyone about wheelchair transportation in Rome and no one seemed to know of any. After walking and pushing the wheelchair for four miles, we found out there are several accessible buses and a tram that would have made things a lot easier."
Brom travels frequently for organizations such as Very Special Arts and the international Association of Foot and Mouth Painting Artists (AFMPA). While att ending an AFMPA convention in Lima, Peru, he and Anne took a side trip to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, an ancient monument accessed by thousands of steep narrow steps. Undaunted, Brom and Anne traveled by train (whose narrow doorways required removal of Brom's wheels) and bus to the entrance.
They hired two men to hoist Brom up the stairs of the monument, removing wheels when the passageways got too narrow. "I got as far as the Sacred Plaza," Brom said, even though "the guys were willing to take me to the top. It was just beautiful. I'd go back anytime."
Here are some additional travel tips from Brom and Anne:
- Make sure you take medications and personal items on your carry-on luggage in case your bags are lost. Take extra wheelchair spokes, a tire patch kit, and a compact tire pump, also.
- "We have found it more economical to rent cars or vans in Europe from the U.S. Two-door cars open wider and are easier to transfer in and out of than four-door models. We have used bike racks and bungee cords for carrying the wheelchair."
- "Europeans and Latin Americans freely smoke everywhere. We have minimized our exposure by eating earlier and scheduling trips during warmer months when eating outdoors is an option."
For information about Brom Wikstrom's art, visit his web site at www.members.aa.net/~bwik/ .