Special Needs Travel
As the mom to an active young woman who has a disability, we have had our share of travels. We could easily do our own version of the movie "Plane, Trains, and Automobiles", but also include boats, helicopters, and waverunners.
Through it, I've seen the effects that these changes in pace and venue have had on my daughter. She has learned about tolerance and perspective, as she has experienced different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of thinking.
I believe it is so important to allow kids of all abilities to experience a world outside their own. It gives them new perspectives, different stimuli, and much needed family time outside of school, doctors' visits, and all the other things that take up our busy lives.
So, where to go...
It really depends on what your family likes to do, and what your child is interested in, but I do have some favorites. We are fairly active, so I like to find places that offer a variety of things to do. It changes the pace up for the kids and allows them to experience more than just sitting around watching television or playing video games.
Of course, Disney is the nirvana of all accessible places. They have done such a great job of being sure that accessibility is taken care of, that you can actually not have to think about the disability. Kids with physical disabilities get priority in line and have special places to sit on the parade route. First aid stations are great if you need to catheterize a child or administer medications in privacy. There are several throughout the parks.
Discovery Cove/Sea World has many interactive activities that get everyone involved and do a great job with accessibility.
Colorado, Washington D.C., and California are accessible destinations that have lots of things for the family to enjoy. You can go to museums, enjoy the outdoors, or just hang out on the beach.
One other thing to consider: Disabled Sports USA has a listing of adaptive programs throughout the U.S., and there are many others worldwide. Call the local organization and see if your family can participate in one of their programs while you are visiting. Texas Rowing for All in Austin took us out kayaking on Lake Austin while we were visiting, and we had a fabulous time!
Camping - there are places with accessible cabins and most state and national parks have accessible camping sites. We have an extra-large tent for the two of us, but it allows my daughter, Kelsey to maneuver her wheelchair. We enjoy making smores and campfires, while playing board games and talking. Our version of hiking is to wheel around the campground looking at the trees, other campsites, people's dogs, or whatever should happen to scamper in our way. There are also many nature programs that we have enjoyed that teach about local animals, plants, or astronomy.
If all this still seems a bit overwhelming, start small. Pick a city nearby that is within driving distance and go. Be a tourist in your own town. You'd be amazed what you could experience even within a short distance.
Things to consider when planning:
Be honest about your child's fatigue level, sensory issues, and physical limitations. Also, be honest with your own limitations. How you feel will have a great impact on your child. I made the mistake of taking my daughter to a huge water park with lots of hills where I was trying to make the experience great for her. I spent the entire day lifting her, carrying her, pushing her up steep hills. It was awful. I was grouchy, and she did not enjoy it either.
Plan for break time and naps; not just for them, but for you!
Figure out what equipment you will need along the way. Shower chairs, hospital beds, spare batteries, etc... Make a list of all the things you need and decide if there are things you should bring vs. rent or request the hotel to have when you get there. We list local providers that rent scooters and medical equipment on our site.
Talk to your child about the adventure. If your child will fly, and may require a pat down by TSA, it's best to explain it ahead of time. My daughter and I joke about pat downs now, but it can be an uncomfortable experience for a child who has never been through it. You can be right by them as it occurs. Also, know your rights. There is a TSA letter on their site that explains your rights. Carry it with you in case you get an agent who doesn't remember their training; calmly ask for supervisor and pull out your document.
If you are traveling abroad, find out what the requirements are for traveling with medications from their consulate. For example, we were preparing to go to Dubai. Dubai requires certified prescriptions from the doctor that are notarized and some medications were not allowed.
Do your homework ahead of time and don't wait until the last minute if you are traveling abroad. There are several good sites that we work with to provide information about a variety of countries' accessibility.
If you are staying in a hotel, contact them ahead of time and be specific in what you will need. Ask questions about the room set up. Most often the front desk staff won't know more about the room than what they see in their computer system. Ask for a manager. Explain your needs and don't be afraid to ask for what you need, but do it in advance. We list lots of details on hotels to help make this part a bit easier.
Being a few steps ahead when planning will help the trip go much smoother.
So away we go....
Here are a few tips to help you along the way:
When traveling with medications, be sure to keep all meds with you in the original bottles and carry prescriptions for sharps or liquids.
You can roll right up to the gate and gate check a wheelchair. The chair is the last thing to go on the plane and the first thing off. Keep the chair in your sights as long as you can and be sure that you see them take it for loading.
Take anything off the chair that can fall off and put it in the overhead.
Bring bubble wrap and tape for any parts on the wheelchair you do not want to risk being damaged that cannot be removed.
Bring more supplies than you think you will need if you are going somewhere that you won't be able to get restocked. You can bring an extra bag of medical supplies and will not be charged. Just be sure to mark the bag medical supplies and don't put anything else in the bag. If you do, it is no longer considered medical supplies and you risk a surcharge.
If you have a walker, crutches, or canes, you can bring them on the plan with you. We have actually had to travel with two wheelchairs, and they took both.
Gauge your child. See how they are reacting and follow their lead. You may not get through all the things you planned to do. That's ok. Enjoy the trip, pace yourself.
Lastly, keep an open mind; sense of adventure and sense of humor. Travel is an adventure, and it doesn't always go exactly as planned. Sometimes those little bumps are the things you laugh about later. Remember, it's not just about all the things you got to do, but about the time spent together.