Traveling with a Child Who Has a Disability

Traveling with children often leads to more adventure than you had originally planned for. This is even more true when the child you're traveling with has a disability. Not only do you have to think about picking a family-friendly destination or how you're going to keep your child busy, you also have to worry about how accessible the hotel room is, whether to bring a wheelchair from home or rent one when you get there, or how to plan your day so your child has enough rest and can take medications on schedule.

These are just a few of the things that Cathy Wangerin must consider when traveling with her son, Ryan, who has cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and is hyperactive.

“Whenever we go anywhere, we have to think about what obstacles we're going to have,” Wangerin says. When planning to visit a dude ranch in Arizona a few years ago, for example, she researched her options and then called her top choices “to talk about their accommodations and Ryan's disability so that they could warn their staff and give us the appropriate accommodations,” she says.

While there are some common concerns for families traveling with a disabled child – accessibility, equipment and communication – every family has unique needs too. So how can parents make sure that their vacation plans will meet all the needs of their child? “It comes down to the four P's – planning, planning, planning and more planning,” says Jani Nayar, executive coordinator for the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality(SATH). “Planning is the key to a successful and tranquil trip.”

Destination: Fun

When planning a vacation, the first thing most families decide is where they'll be going. For families with a child who has a disability, selecting a destination comes down to finding one that's willing and able to meet the child's specific needs, notes Candy Harrington, author of Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers and the editor of Emerging Horizons, a travel magazine for people with mobility disabilities.

For example, some popular family-destination spots such as theme parks allow people with disabilities to enter rides and attractions through the exit, rather than having to stand in long lines, says Jim Peterson, director and founder of Trips Inc., a provider of travel outings for people with developmental disabilities. This accommodation does not apply only to visitors with mobility impairments. People with disabilities such as autism or seizure disorders don't “jump out” as disabled, yet they are unable to stand in lines for a long period of time. “So it's a good thing for parents to know,” Peterson says.

“Look for destinations that promote their access, those that have access guides or access information on their Web site,” Harrington advises. “Steer clear of people that seem to have a bad attitude, folks who say, ‘Well, we certainly can't accommodate your child. You shouldn't even be traveling,'” she advises. “Remember, it's your vacation and you want to have fun and go someplace where you'll really feel welcome.”

Once you have selected a destination, Nayar suggests finding out everything you can about its accessibility before you depart. “The more you know about the place, the more fun you'll have and the more things you can do together,” she says.

Up, Up and Away: When Flying is the Only Way to Go

Once you've researched and selected an accessible destination, you'll need to consider how you're going to get there.

Sometimes, flying is the only way to go. In order to make plane travel as smooth as possible, experts recommend working with people who have experience with travelers with disabilities.

To begin with, don't book a flight over the Internet, advises travel consultant Fred Rosen, author of How to Travel: A Guidebook for Persons with a Disability. In order to get the level of service your family needs, Rosen suggests using a travel agent who is well-versed in handling the challenges of traveling with children who have disabilities – someone who can get you specific answers as to your questions regarding your child's needs.

“Don't just go with a travel agent who says, ‘we could do this' or ‘we could do that,'” Rosen says. “You have to have a definite answer. If you don't get a definite answer, go somewhere else.”

When booking a flight, Peterson advises parents to tell the ticketing agent that their child has a disability and what type it is, especially if it's not something very obvious.

“Even if you don't need extra help, when you say your child has a developmental disability, that gets coded into the computer so when you go to get on the plane it should pop up and they'll ask you if you need any assistance,” he explains. “It's just good for the airline to know that in case there's an emergency and also a lot of times they'll leave the bulkhead open and might decide to put you up there because there is more room.”

Harrington urges parents to make sure they know their child's rights under the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) and the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA). This way, she says “you'll know what to expect and you can effectively advocate for your child.”

Knowing your rights will also help make going through airport security less confusing and stressful. For example, parents are allowed to take on board any medical equipment their child may need, such as syringes for a diabetic child, according to Nayar. “But you need to take the doctor's prescription with you that proves you have this problem and need this equipment.”

Other rights to keep in mind are that a person in a wheelchair or with any type of disability can ask for a private screening rather than being searched in front of others. Additionally, you can ask that a service dog's harness not be removed when it's searched during a security check.

Trains, Automobiles & Ships

While taking an airplane may seem like the most obvious way of getting to your destination, in some cases cars, trains or even cruise ships may be the better way to go.

“For a lot of parents, cruise ships are one of the best ways to take a vacation,” Peterson says. “It might not work for some kids because of their disability, but the big benefit of cruise ships is you have all the entertainment right there, so logistically it's easier.”

If you're traveling by train, know that all Amtrak trains have at least one accessible coach car and passengers can travel in their own wheelchair or transfer to a coach seat, according to Harrington. “All trains have wheelchair spaces, however there are no lockdowns on intercity trains.”

Inquire about the specifics when you make your reservation. Amtrak also has an access guide that describes its accessible services (see Resources).

When traveling by automobile or bus, Nayar advises parents to make sure there are accessible rest stops along the way and that they are well equipped for dealing with long waits.

“Bring food, medicine, water and batteries if you need electrical equipment – all those essential items – because you can have a flat tire that for some reason can't be fixed or you might after all your planning be stuck in a traffic jam on the road for five to six hours,” she says.

Room for All: Choosing an Accessible Play to Stay

Just as important as finding transportation that can meet your child's needs is making sure you have an accessible place to stay once you get to your destination. When making a hotel reservation, be sure to describe the nature of your child's disability and verify that the hotel can meet his or her needs, Rosen advises.

Harrington urges parents to make sure they know their child's rights under the Air Carriers Access Act (When talking with a reservations clerks, they may say, “yes, we're handicapped accessible,” but they may be thinking only of someone in a wheelchair, he says. They don't necessarily think about other disabilities.

Even if your child has an “invisible” disability – one that the general public can't immediately identify – the hotel should still be able to accommodate your needs, Rosen adds. “Tell them the nature of the disability and what you need. If they don't have what you need, then go to another hotel.”

Once you have made the reservation, Rosen suggests getting the confirmation in writing. “There's nothing in the law that says they have to hold the room, all they have to do is have accessible rooms,” he explains. “So you should get the confirmation in writing if possible, but there's still no guarantee that the room will be there. If they fill up with people coming for a convention, they might fill up all the accessible rooms.”

So what should you do if you arrive at the hotel and the room is not as accessible as you had expected?

Barbara Jacobson, president of Flying Wheels Travel, suggests getting help from those around you. “You just have to make friends with the bellmen and have them come up and help you adjust as much as you can,” she suggests. “Don't be afraid to move furniture around and adjust the room to the way you want it. I've seen a lot of people take off bathroom doors if they can't get into the bathroom with a wheelchair. No matter how much homework you do, it's not always going to be quite the way you expect it to be. Lower your expectations, because it's not going to be like your accessible home – it's going to be different.”

On Your Way

The day has come. You've planned as much as humanly possible and you're ready to embark on your family trip. But what if something still goes wrong?

Preparation is really the only thing you can do to make sure everyone can enjoy the trip as much as possible, Harrington says. “There are no guarantees in life, and travel, by its very nature, is unpredictable. There are numerous variables involved on any given trip and, theoretically, something could go awry at any stage of the game. The best defense is proper preparation. Do your research, learn your rights and know what to do if things do go wrong.”


Books & Pamphlets" target="_blank" class="featuredlink">Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, by Candy Harrington, Xlibris Corp., 2001.

How to Travel: A Guidebook for Persons with a Disability, by Fred Rosen, Science & Humanities Press, 1997.

On the Web

Access-Able Travel Source – Features a travel-agent finder that allows you to search by a particular disability: blind and low vision, developmental disabilities, hearing impaired, mobility restricted, dialysis, oxygen and diabetes.

Amtrak – Lists accessible services and tips for making train travel as barrier-free as possible.

Emerging Horizons Emerging Horizons magazine's Web site contains a searchable travel-resource database.

Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality – This non-profit educational organization has actively represented travelers with disabilities since 1976. Its Web site features an extensive list of resources for travelers with a disability.

Special Travel Companies

Flying Wheels – 143 W. Bridge St., Owatonna, MN 55060

Trips Inc. – P.O. Box 10885, Eugene, OR 97440

Corrie Pelc is a special sections editor for United Parenting Publications.