The Transition to Accessible Independent Travel -- A Parent's Perspective
I created TravelinWheels because I wanted people with disabilities to be able to travel the world confidently and independently. My goal was to provide tools and information so that everyone would get to enjoy the world that I have had the privilege of experiencing throughout my life. My motives were also selfish, too. I wanted to make it easier so that my daughter, who uses a wheelchair full-time, would get to experience the world on her terms.
Well, the day has finally come for my daughter to travel solo. She qualified to compete at the National Junior Disability Championships this week in Mesa, AZ, but I had to be in Atlanta for the Delta Disability Advisory Board Meeting. After some deliberation, and a lot of pre-planning, we agreed that she was ready.
For any parent, the thought of your child traveling across the country on their own can provide a little anxiety. For a parent of a child who has a disability, the anxiety is even greater. It doesn't matter that she is 19 years old; she is MY child! Would TSA treat her with dignity, and would she speak up if something wasn’t right? Would she find her gate? Would she remember to ask the flight attendant to confirm that her wheelchair was stowed before takeoff? Would she remember her self-care? Added to that, she took her service animal, so I was concerned about the dog, too!
Was I ready to let go? Possibly, as long as I felt she would be safe.
Fortunately, she had a friend who also had to fly to Nationals. While neither girl had flown solo, we were confident that two heads would be better than one, and they could help each other. Because they were meeting coaches in Phoenix, we didn’t have to worry about ground transportation. Honestly, this opportunity was a great chance for both girls to experience the freedom of travel, but have a bit of a safety net in case they needed help. So, once we decided that the girls would travel on their own, we started to plan.
We chose a smaller departure airport that would be easier to maneuver. The girls flew out of Milwaukee instead of O’Hare. We chose the first flight of the day because the likelihood of delay is less. The girls would share an accessible hotel room at the competition’s host hotel so that assistance would be close at hand, should they need it.
On the days leading up to the trip, we thought about luggage and what would work best. We decided that it would be easier for her to have her luggage with her rather than try to deal with baggage claim, especially if her luggage got lost. This posed another issue; how would she maneuver her wheelchair, dog, and bag to the gate? She could always ask for assistance, but she wanted to try it on her own.
My daughter sometimes has trouble remembering things, so we came up with strategies to help her. Rather than me pack her bags, I helped her determine what she needed to bring, and then she did the packing. Because she chose her clothes and actually put them in the suitcase, she had a better chance of remembering what she brought with her. She also packed her own medical supplies and the dog’s food, too.
I was also nervous that her memory would fail her, and she would forget something when going through security or on the plane. I created lists of the things that she should have with her when she got through TSA, the gate, and off the plane. It would be easy to forget a bag or seat cushion, so creating checklists made it easier for her to remember what she needed to carry with her. It turns out that all of our previous travels helped her remember exactly what she had to do, so she didn’t need the lists.
We talked about checking in at the hotel, and I had to show her how to use her brand new debit card for purchases and cash withdrawals. Kelsey had gotten used to using cash when she went out with her friends, but a debit card is a much more convenient way for her to pay for meals and her hotel bill.
She had to meet her coach in baggage claim, which is a considerable distance from the arrival gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. We talked about signage, and what to look for. She would have to pay attention to signs and make her way to the meeting point. Was I nervous that she would get lost? Of course!
Regardless, a few days ago, I dropped her off at the airport, kissed her on the forehead, and wished her a safe trip. As I watched her go through security, I saw my baby go into the world on her own. I’d given here the tools, knowledge, and planning, but now she would have to use them.
While I anxiously awaited text messages letting me know she was alright, she breezed through her flight and arrived at her destination without incident. She checked in to her hotel, ensured it was accessible for her, and asked for what she needed. She did great!
In the days since her departure, she has had the thrill of not only her competition, but the freedom to enjoy traveling on her terms. Of course, for me, it was a bit too much freedom; on the first day, after not answering her phone or text, I had to resort to putting out an APB to her friends who were with her on Facebook. She called two minutes later, wondering why I was so worried. Ugh…
I also saw her post photos to Facebook; silly ones with her roommate, and she had the biggest smile on her face. When I looked at the photos, I saw not only her joy, but she also seemed a little older. I realized that a chapter of our lives has passed, and I am now officially the parent of a capable, young adult. I couldn’t be happier or more proud.
Oh, and by the way, she took Gold in her Powerlifting competition and Silver in Field events….