During a recent conversation with a beloved aunt I was struck by the joy that I saw in her eyes and the passion I heard in her voice as she talked about an upcoming trip.  When asked where her love of travel came from she shared that likely her “wanderlust resulted from childhood travels with my family”.  

If my aunt had a healthy body this would not have been that remarkable but she’s disabled which has required that she adapt how she travels.  When asked, she graciously agreed to an interview to share her perspective on the unique considerations that go into trip planning. 

Where To Go

International travel brings its own unique challenges from crowded, impassable sidewalks, cobblestone streets, and stairwells (think Venice) required to navigate a city.  Not to forget those charmingly intimate elevators that are barely large enough for two people.  

Recommendation #1: Plan a trip within the country where your handicapped family member lives.

Logistics: Getting To/From 

Between the requirement to walk through security unaided (no cane or walker) or enduring the special screening for handicap individuals, airline travel is not optimal.  My aunt shared a particularly humiliating memory of being required to remove her prosthesysis in the screening area while strangers and family members looked on.  

When asked about RV or larger van travel she shared that it is very difficult to get into these vehicles and that once you’re inside it is very difficult to manuever.  She highlighted the small RV bathrooms that make it impossible to use a walker or wheelchair and that the vans require that you need to maneuver your body as  you walk to your seat and then scoot across the seat.  These are movements that are very difficult.  If van travel is required, and they can step up into the vehicle (perhaps with the aid of a secure step stool), your disabled family member should be seated in the front passenger seat.  

Recommendation #2: If a family member is unable to walk through security without a cane or walker, eliminate air travel whenever possible and explore central locations that would allow them to travel by car and, once arrived, unpack and do day trips in the car to see interesting places.  National parks are always a great idea! 

Where To Stay 

Reading that a property meets the accessibility standards is not sufficient.  It’s important to contact the property owner/manager and talk about access to the room as well as the room and bathroom configuration (or request a FaceTime tour during a Zoom call with your disabled relative!).  

My aunt shared that they used to love to stay in bed and breakfasts but that due to these types of places typically being in multi-story older homes with tight doorways and halls it is no longer an option.  

The following are tips of what to look for: 

  • Ground floor rooms near an exterior entrance with a ramp is optimal.  It also helps to ensure that should a fire occur your loved one could get to an exterior entrance.  If they are located on a higher floor and the elevators do not work they will not be able to get to the ground floor. 
  • Single-story houses (or houses in which the main activities will occur on the entrance level with a bedroom for your handicap family member) work well.  Don’t forget to check that the driveway is at the same level as the entrance to the main level of the house.  
  • Bathrooms are tricky in that if the shower is a step up and over there will need to be a stool.  If possible, a shower entrance at floor level is optimal.  Mirrors may be hung too high for family members in wheelchairs and the vanity may be configured such that it is difficult if not impossible to maneuver the wheelchair to access the sink faucets, not to mention items on the countertop. 

When asked about traveling on a cruise ship she said the accommodations are typically excellent, while slightly more expensive for handicap accommodations, but that there were not enough activities for people with disabilities onboard the ship.  In addition, the excursions require that you are doing things on the cruise ship’s schedule and also disembarking/embarking and then climbing into a van or bus.  Eating from buffets was difficult because it required two trips to get food since she was not able to go through a buffet line in a walker/wheelchair.  

Recommendation #3:  Contact the owner of a promising VRBO or AirBnB property and confirm that they can accommodate a disabled family member.  Don’t forget to check for the above tips.  

What To Do

While on your trip provide alternative activities for disabled family members, ensuring that they are not left alone.  These would be activities that others would also enjoy participating in.  The safe assumption is that not everyone will be doing everything together.  

In thinking about prior family trips I asked my aunt if she would be able to do a level 1 or 2 raft float trip.  While she would be physically able to do it she cited the potential risk of the raft flipping over.  Her prosthesis weighs 5 pounds and it would quickly pull her under the water where she would drown. While a family member may be able to participate in a particular activity, it may not be safe due to their disability. 

Recommendation #4:  Plan activities that accommodate all physical abilities and ensure that the family members with disabilities are not left out.  This may include taking a 3-mile hike at the same time as a Scrabble tournament.  

Throughout the conversation with my aunt I was repeatedly struck by her resilience and adaptability and also her courage to continue to accept her limitations.  As we wrapped up our call, my aunt shared that not every person can do everything they want to do – that we have to accept our limitations and do what we can!  

My conversation left me with a renewed commitment to put in the thoughtful planning required to create memorable experiences for aging and disabled family members. 

Mary Beth I have a passion for creating and experiencing unforgettable moments and sharing those with others. I hope that this story has helped you experience one of those moments.

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