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10 Tips for Traveling With a Family Member With Disabilities

Find accessible adventures so everyone is included.

Our family of five, including my children ages 11, 9, and 8, loves to explore and go on adventures. My 9-year-old has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. When he was younger, I worried about how we would go on excursions without splitting up our family.

After a decade of navigating inaccessibility, I’ve learned that with some persistence and forward-thinking we can modify many activities to get out together. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the past decade on how to forge forward and explore without the added stress.

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Research Photos Online

This may seem simple, but the first thing I do when I’m headed someplace new is a quick Google search. I scan photos on a facility’s website to hopefully learn what accommodations are available. If the information isn’t obvious (some sites do a great job of laying out how and where the facility is accessible and others, unfortunately, don’t), I check out the photos of the building and grounds. Customer photos on Yelp or TripAdvisor can also give me clues. Some basics I look out for: Are there stairs to the front door? If so, is there an easy-to-find ramp? If we are going to a restaurant, is it big enough to reasonably accommodate a wheelchair? Are the tables close together or spaced out?

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Follow Social Media Accounts for Ideas

Social media is a great place to find accessible accommodations, vacation destinations, or even just great day trips. Whether you are going to a new city or a new country, consistently follow hashtags such as #accessibletravel, #accessiblevacations, #accessibility, or even just #wheelchair on Instagram. You can find thousands of posts and stories about accessible hotels, transportation, and activities. Scroll through until you find a few people that fit your specific criteria and follow them regularly.

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Take Notes When You See a Place That Looks Intriguing

Once you’ve found your sources, whether they are local friends or experts who regularly post about their travels, start a list and add to it. I used to assume I would remember scanning through appealing photos of a place that interested me, but I’ve learned my lesson. I may remember a few details, like the lush gardens, but I’m rarely going to remember specifics about the name of the location, or even who posted it.

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Go First and Check It Out

This isn’t always feasible, but if I am going someplace new that is local, I take a trip to check out the grounds before heading there with my whole family. It takes the guesswork out of the adventure and allows me to enjoy time with my family knowing that we won’t come across barriers.

If I can’t get there in person (i.e., I don’t have the time or the place is too far away), I call ahead and ask the front desk, host, or concierge the questions I would have been looking to answer if I was there myself. (See next tip).

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Call Ahead

This may also seem obvious, but occasionally I skip this step and regret it later. A quick phone call can get me the answers I need. An added bonus–sometimes the person who answered the phone will remember me when I arrive and be that much more willing to help. They know I did my due diligence and that I am serious about using (and paying for) their services.

For example, last year my family drove twelve hours to Hilton Head. I spoke ahead of time with the concierge about the accessible pool and beach (and free beach wheelchair rentals). I also booked a boat ride to see dolphins. The person I spoke with over the phone remembered me when I arrived and made our trip that much more accommodating.

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Call Ahead Again--and Find Someone With Authority

More often than I care to admit, the first person who answers the phone can’t help me. If they hesitate or seem unsure of the information they are providing (people don’t like to say “I don’t know”), I ask to speak to a manager. Someone will know the answer–finding that individual is the goal.

I’ve encountered this situation several times–when I take my son snow tubing, when we go to amusement parks, and when we go to the local ice skating rink (we put his wheelchair directly on the ice). Most ticket sales agents told me “No,” when I asked if my son could participate. Half an hour later, after speaking to a manager, director, or the person in charge of accessibility, we were all flying down the mountain or screaming on a roller coaster.  

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Ask for Accommodations or Support

I don’t just ask the people who work at a facility for help. Sometimes, I look to the kindness of strangers. When I’m out with my three children alone I don’t hesitate when someone opens the door for us. The same applies when our needs are a little bigger.

For example, a few years ago we went to see a show in New York City. The building wasn’t accessible, and the theater was down a flight of steps. Several people helped us lift my son’s chair down the stairs and then back up again. Many people are willing to lend a hand if you just let them know what you need.

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Be Polite but Persistent

Navigating accessibility can become frustrating and exhausting. It’s easy to get irritated when someone doesn’t know how to help or if there aren’t accommodations already in place. The best approach is to continue explaining your needs and be willing to work with someone in charge. Rules are there for a reason, but they can be broken in situations that require it. And the only way someone is going to think outside of the box and work to make it happen is when someone is polite. Most people will work together to find a solution if they realize that you are patient and appreciative of their efforts.

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Get Creative

You know your personal situation best. Are there ways that you can modify an activity that allows everyone to participate? For example, when my children were younger, I wondered how we would go biking together. My husband came up with a great strategy. When we go on bike paths, my husband wears roller blades and pushes our son in his wheelchair. My son loves to move as fast as the rest of us, and we don’t have to split up our family.

Last year my husband and I took kayaking lessons. We asked the instructor for suggestions on how to get my son on the water. He didn’t know how to guide us, but we figured it out (my son sits in front of my husband on a “sit-on-top” kayak) and we get out on the water regularly.

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Don’t Rule Anything Out

After a decade of parenting children with varying needs, I’ve learned not to predict how our day will go. Instead, I think through the adventure we want to go on. I learn what the activity entails, research strategies ahead of time, and find others who have forged that path before us.

I may have to expend the extra effort that first time around, but the next time will be that much easier. And if I don’t have the energy beforehand? I make sure I remain flexible. With this mindset, I never know where my family and I will end up—it’s usually someplace great.