Traveling While Disabled

Just a little preparation and you can GO! Anywhere….

Tips for the Traveler with a Disability

I won’t even pretend to have it all figured out as far as traveling goes but I can’t understand people who often tell me they are afraid to travel when usually it’s not based on attempts but simply more fear.

I CAN understand more that you  may have more of a lack of desire to get on a plane for any length of time. That part is universal, even non disabled people hate traveling by plane. BUT, for many of us, its a hassle, its unknown, and it’s scary, I understand, I was that way once, BUT I have done all matter of travel using ALL modes and as I get older, I admit that it does get harder and harder but that doesn’t mean I don’t still make a point of getting out and going and trying to live life to the fullest. And being a local connoisseur is also living life to the fullest. I’m not saying NOT traveling is the end all. Things happen, as people with disabilities, for some more severe kinds of issues, we often have expensive equipment to transport, breathing apparatuses that could mean life or death if damaged but obviously I’m NOT talking about those kinds of issues.  I know travel is annoying but I’m speaking more so to the mobility issues set. Just to be clear.

Anyone who uses a wheelchair knows that it can break down just driving down the sidewalk. I pass nuts and bolts on the ground every now and then and sometimes I think, is that a part of my chair? I stop short of picking it up and hope for the best. At the end of the day, equipment is manmade. Just as the potential exists for it to break down, there’s potentially someone around who can fix it.  Man made machinery has man-made problems.

You CAN travel. You CANNOT LET disability stop YOU and while repairs are costly, the need for them, however, can be avoided if you take proper care. IF it’s something that’s clearly the airline or other transit providers fault, there are ways to BE CERTAIN THAT THEY WILL ABSORB THE COST OF THE DAMAGE and REPAIR.

THROUGHOUT MY JOURNEY – here’s some things I’ve learned.


FOR Swing-away joysticks – if you have this, sometimes it can swing away completely and I can see it also ripping off with enough pressure or force. All you need is some simple tough line, or a cord (bungie is good). Wrap the joystick –tie it to the armrest or something thats sturdy and stationary. This will keep it from coming apart.

IF you get your equipment and it’s damaged upon return to you, DO NOT LEAVE the airport (or other transportation facility). FIND Customer Service and FILE a claim while you are there. It will not be paid right on the spot but you ruin your chances of filing a claim if you leave like nothing is wrong. Which also means you need to CHECK EVERYTHING to ensure it’s working properly. They have to see if and they have to file a record, get a copy of it and don’t lose it.  You will likely have to pay for the repairs and submit the receipts to the company for reimbursement OR have the repair company call the contact to get the bill paid directly.




Don’t be afraid to put tags on your chair. Write out directions for disengaging (manual pushing), have them laminated and use some of that tough cord (zip ties) to hang on the back of your chair. Make the instructions simple in nature and be specific, e.g., DO NOT DISCONNECT or  DRY CELL BATTERIES.

Don’t be afraid to put a note over your battery pack saying “PLEASE DO NOT DISCONNECT”. Some people will adhere to this and some won’t. Airlines often want to disconnect the battery because they are afraid of explosions. Recent hoverboard issues only made this worse for us even when the truth is that more cell phone batteries and yes, hoverboards than power wheelchair batteries have been the guilty culprit behind fires on airplanes. We’re fortunate in that our behinds have yet to blow up or catch on fire, mid roll. Just saying. 🙂

When you receive your chair at the gate, IF it doesn’t work, ANY engineer should know how to reconnect the batteries. LOOK AROUND for people wearing gear – it’s a pain I realize but you want to get going don’t you? I’ve found that people wearing equipment and gadgets, face it, they know what to do! If it turns out they don’t know, they can call the person who disconnected your machine at the other airport (assuming they’re not off duty) and walk them through it. I’ve done ALL of the above before. I’ve even asked strangers if they know what to do. Many people aren’t above trying even if it’s wrong.


PRIOR  – You should call ahead and speak to a customer service rep. Tell them your issue. If you will travel by bus or boat, you will likely STAY IN YOUR CHAIR – THEY need to know this. This is NOT the time to be mysterious and withhold key information. Sorry, but at the time of travel, I’m not conducting a survey on accessibility and friendliness. This is not the time for that.

DURING – As soon you as you arrive for departure, make nice with those that look like they are directing everyone. You march or roll up to them and tell them what you need, being specific. Be clear about what you need and go wait patiently. If you’re late, fine, you still let them know as soon as possible.

AFTER – Don’t hesitate to have a letter ready to go after you’ve arrived home, safely. Tell people when they did a good job, a lost art these days but EVERYONE HEARS ABOUT IT when people don’t do the best YOU feel they could have. Commend them when they do. Always have some money for tips. You never know who will be pushing you across the airport in a pinch (and usually in a hurry).


I understand you can’t pack everything in a carry-on but you can (and you should) pack a one-day supply of things like meds, an outfit, personal supplies AND things you need that are specialty (hard to find) items. Be prepared to survive one day without your checked luggage.

More often than not, I look up Wheelchair Repair Shops PRIOR to departing, just in case and I may even call to make sure they still exist because EVERYTHING ON THE INTERNET IS ACCURATE, OF COURSE. This way, I’m not panicked if I get there and there’s a problem with my equipment, I know exactly where to go. It takes the pressure off.

If you need to,  you can look up other places such as, drug store/pharmacy similar to what you frequent at home. Don’t assume a chain store has access to your medical history, however.

In my travels, I have rented a Hoyer lift and an a wheelchair accessible ramp-van. Hospital beds, wheelchairs and manual, power chairs and electric scooters are all items you can rent for your trip. The weekly rate is usually pretty reasonable too! In advance of calling an equipment rental facility, try calling the local center for independent living FIRST, in the area you’ll be traveling to. They often have equipment you might be able to borrow for the duration of your trip if you can’t afford these added expenses AND they often know where to get said equipment IF they don’t have it. They will also know about any transit options you might need to get around town.

If you use a Paratransit provider where you live (available in most metro areas) like I do, your membership/eligibility does transfer for the time you will stay. But call ahead to get it squared away and get your name on their roster.


WE ARE VERY FORTUNATE to have SO MANY people sharing their experiences on the internet. What a concept. Try using Pinterest too! Type in various search words, see what other people have to say, choose “IMAGES” when you search instead of “web” and see what comes up. I’ve seen some great videos about Amtrak online too as I prepare to take the Autotrain in the fall.

I will never understand people who don’t call ahead. It’s really the only assurance you have before you get going and it’s often still not enough. Go online, visit the place, look at videos, READ reviews and the CALL the company directly and speak to live being. You have to do your RESEARCH. CALL and ASK questions. Take reviews with a grain of salt too, watch what people comment on. Everyone can have a bad day.


It’s hard to ask for help. I know that. Would you rather struggle or believe that people are willing to help if you just ask POLITELY for some assistance? Many appreciate proper instruction. It saves both you and them. Thankfulness goes a long way. I’ve had some great people I’ve met, all of them mean well and I believe this. I introduce my first name and I ask what their name is.  You will feel rushed, sometimes, they’ll be people waiting in line. They will be impatient sometimes and they will believe that you are holding up their ticket to fun. If you’re early and on time, you can have dignity of getting helped first before others get on. If you’re late, do your best to be polite even if stressed out, it’s all how you handle small setbacks and snafus.

People are pretty forgiving and if you go with the right attitude, you’ll have a great time.

I wrote this article years ago, thus, I’ve updated it a bit, note that there are now more resources than I can list here in my blog. Below is just small start. Whatever condition you have, there is likely a book or website JUST for that specific issue.

I realize travel can be difficult but at least try it. Don’t let one bad experience deter you from giving it another go.

Now, get going! See the World, it’ll be there for you when you get there.


Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts And Bolts Guide for Wheelers And Slow Walkers, There is Room at the Inn: Inns and B&Bs for Wheelers and Slow Walkers and 101 Accessible Vacations: Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. – a magazine about accessible travel for wheelers to slow walkers.


I believe it is completely fine to make your reservations on the following discount/best-price finder sites such as the following below, HOWEVER, NOTE these can be considered second and third party sites. As such, they won’t always know about accessibility features and they may not be able to guarantee accessibility rooms for example when you arrange your trip through them. They ARE getting better BUT IF I use a third party vendor, AFTER I make my trip, I still call the actual property directly. Whether that’s a hotel, airline or other company.


* Note, listing these discount travel sites is NOT by any means, an endorsement, these are just some of the sites I’ve used to comparison shop different airfare/hotel and car rental rates.

Calling any company/provider directly also mans they will:

– Get me in the right seat -usually closest to the door

– Make a note of my special needs and provide some kind of escort (for the train they are called Skycaps)

– Note the equipment I carry/utilize (a wheelchair) and ensure they are aware of process and handling of it. ALWAYS NOTE whether you will stay in your chair and if its a power or manual chair, collapsable or not.

AirBnB – specifically a link to their statement on accessibility and compliance with the ADA

I have no experience with the relatively new AirBnB – I am only sharing a link about their accessibility of their properties. Remember such properties are managed by the owner and as such, information on accessible features will be harder to gage. There is no real federal regulation, nor any enforcement of the ADA and as a private property, there doesn’t have to be. Thus, it’s more enter at your own risk and you get what you get with no real recourse/channels to complain.

At this point, my favorite modes of transit include

  1. Megabus

  2. Train (e.g. Amtrak)

To this day, I can’t believe that in my twenties I actually traveled by plane to California all by myself. I was determined to participate in a program for youth with disabilities that was made possible by a non profit organization called Mobility International USA. It’s a wonderful group of people. Visit them at for more information.

As I get older I can’t believe that I did that, and while it was before 9-11, I’ll always be proud of the fearless moments I’ve tried. Today, while by bus and by train are the best modes for me, I hope that I will always desire to go somewhere and to explore the world I live in. The day is coming where I will be able to ride in a plane from the comfort of my chair and I hope that effort will be realized before I can’t participate. If you’d like to help advocate for increased travel on behalf of yourself as a disabled person or as a companion, relative or advocate for people with disabilities, please see this opportunity.

101 Accessible Vacations – Candy B. Harrington

Air Travel for People with Disabilities SURVEY –  (survey for the traveler with a disability and may no longer be available at time reading this post)

Accessible Air Travel: A Guide for People with Disabilities – by the United Spinal Association

Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Accessible Air Travel Resource Center

Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH)

United Spinal Association RESOURCE CENTER  (Includes International Travel Resources)

If you will travel to a resort, Disney World resorts for instance have actual guides AND A DVD that you can obtain in advance to view some of their accessible features so you can take advantage of them.

Also make contact with the local Travel and Tourism Bureau – they also put out in their guides an accessibility category that highlights things you will definitely want to see.

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