Traveling with children is a challenge in itself. Traveling with children with disabilities can be overwhelming, especially for first-timers. Still, children with disabilities need to get out of the house and see the world just as much as any other child. According to Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, there’s no reason you can’t travel anywhere you want with a child with a disability. You just have to be a really good planner.
“You cannot pick up and go like everyone else does. You have to plan your trip very carefully,” she said. Nayar stresses that it’s important for a child regardless of ability to “get out of the house and travel like any other child.”
Peter Mance, 12, knows every street in a new city before he even sets foot in it. He is autistic and can memorize maps.
“He’s actually a big help when traveling,” jokes his mom, Kim Mance. Mance is the founder of the Travel Blog Exchange and Galavanting, a community of travel bloggers and writers and a women’s travel blog, respectively. An attempt to surgically remove a spinal tumor left her other son, 10-year-old Stephen, paralyzed below the waist and in a wheelchair.
Mance has to make extra calls ahead of time to make sure there’s an accessible hotel room or subway, but she’s never let that stop her from taking her sons with her on vacations. Her worldwide travels are mostly for business, but Peter as accompanied her on trips since his autism diagnosis at 2½. She told CNN Travel that taking Peter along keeps him from getting “rutted into routine,” touching on the fact that not every autistic child adjusts well his or her routine is disrupted.
“By [traveling] consistently over time, he’s developed ways to cope with being outside his routine,” she said. To help, Mance creates games, like hunting to search for his pajamas, which Peter plays on every trip. Though Peter eagerly looks forward to each trip, Mance says not every autistic child will handle being in a new place well.
“You’d be surprised how somebody can get really irritable because they think your kid is misbehaving,” she said. She sometimes has Peter wear a T-shirt or button that says, “I’m autistic. Please be patient,”–a friendly reminder to other travelers that he isn’t purposely being a brat.
According to Lisa Goring, Vice President of Family Services at Autism Speaks, every autistic child reacts differently when traveling out of their familiar surrounding. “There are some kids with autism that love to travel and do really well. For others, it can just be more challenging,” she said. She suggests parents prepare a tell a child accustomed to a routine by telling him or her in advance that they will be going to a new place. They could create a book with pictures of the travel destination to show the child so he or she will know what to expect.
Michell Haase, founder of TravelinWheels.com, which offer travel tips for families with special-needs’ members, said families should “start small.”
“It doesn’t have to be the big trip to France,” she said. She suggests that families who are new to traveling with a special-needs child drive to a nearby city and attempt booking a stay at a hotel to get an idea of what accessibility issues might arise. Hotels are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide accessible amenities for everyone, regardless of ability.
“Don’t just ask if the room is accessible, because it means so many things to so many people,” she said, adding that it’s okay to ask questions and make specific requests. On previous trips, Haase got hotel managers to replace their shower chairs that lacked supportive backs with ones that can be used by people who have balance problems, like her 18-year-old daughter Kelsey, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Kelsey is proof that a person can accomplish anything regardless of ability. She’s a wheelchair athlete who’s been all over the US and is a national powerlifting champion.
Even with the most meticulous planning and research, mishaps can still occur. During one trip, Haase and Kelsey were stuck in the rain at a rental car place that didn’t have an accessible shuttle. On another trip in Chicago, they ended up stranded in smoldering heat because a trolley car was too crowded to accommodate Kelsey’s wheelchair.
You just have to learn to roll with it and always expect the unexpected. “I’m always having to be five steps ahead of the game and thinking what we’re going to need,” said Haase. “And then, when it doesn’t work out, it becomes really frustrating.”
According to Mance, the one thing parents struggle to overcome is the intimidation of taking a trip. It eventually becomes second nature, she says, once you learn where to go and how to get from one place to another. “Over the years, I’ve developed this sixth sense about which entrance is more likely to have a ramp or certain places that may be able to accommodate even just space between chairs at restaurants,” she said. Mance has taken Peter and Stephen to several countries, including Japan and Morocco.
Parents should look for attractions in the city or country traveling to that offers programs for children with special needs. New Jersey’s Garden State Discovery Museum, for example, offers Open Arms Family Evenings several times a year. The hands-on museum features simulations of real-life scenarios, such as ordering food at a diner or buying food at a grocery store, and is very beneficial for autistic children that struggle with daily activities. “The more they can practice in a safe environment, the better they are in the real world because it’s not new to them,” said Judy Shapiro, Director of Sales and Marketing.
Parents can also opt for cruises with accessible pools and special programs for children. Nayar stated that many ships offer youth activities that parents and their children participate in together. Travel experts and mothers both say The Magic Kingdom is the best place to travel with a special-needs child.
“Disney World is the nirvana,” said Mance. “We usually go to Disney World and almost forget that there’s any issue.”
Disney offers Guest Assistance Cards for people with disabilities that can be used to wait in separate lines for rides, and up to five people can accompany them on the attraction. Mance recently went there with her kids. She said the pass made going through the lines “exponentially faster,” and her son loved the graffiti design on the signs with a wheelchair symbol because it was especially for the kids. “He felt so accepted,” she said.
Disney also allows family with special-needs children to test rides–without having to get back in line–to see how well a special-needs child will react before getting on. Mance makes sure to bring earplugs for Peter to use if the noise gets too loud.
Nayar said that New York City is one of the most accessible cities in the US. It has accessible public transportation and museums, and efforts are underway to make theater productions more accessible. The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts recently began the Broadway Accessibility Initiative to make Broadway shows more enjoyable for the blind and the deaf. Executive director Sharon Jensen stated that they want to “open up Broadway to an audience who has historically not been reached out to.”
National parks are also an option for families that are looking for outdoor activities. Nearly all have accessible activities such as kayaking and accessible hiking trails. Some parks even have accessible cabins that have kitchens with low counters and showers that can accommodate wheelchairs.
“Traveling allows kids to see the world in a positive light, but planning a dream vacation isn’t going to be simple,” Haase said. “Especially when they’re disabled, you want them to have a good experience, so it’s a lot of pressure.”
By leaving the security of their home and traveling all over the country, Haase feels she and Kelsey are showing how people can create change at attractions, restaurants and hotels to make traveling easier for everyone. “It’s one thing to have a law that says you have to do this,” said Haase. “It’s a whole other thing to see somebody experience the struggle and then want to help them.”