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For many people, traveling, whether near or far, is often taken for granted for its normality. But when you have a disability, it can be more challenging and stressful to go through the process. You may even worry so much that in the end, you may decide not to proceed with your trip as it is making you too anxious thinking about all the things that could potentially go wrong.
However, planning your trip and arming yourself with the correct information is the best way to ensure a safe and smooth journey. In this guide to accessible travel, we will show you how to plan for every stage of your trip so that no matter what your disability is, you can ensure that you will have a more pleasant and stress-free journey.
Know Your Rights When Traveling
As one of the world’s leading free countries, the USA has many acts in place that protect disabled people. Many of these apply to traveling, so it is important to make sure you know what your rights are as a disabled person.
Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is equivalent to the ADA for airlines and has been in place since 1986. It protects disabled passengers and lays out legal guidelines for air companies to adhere to. The policy is enforced by USDOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) and ensures you are fully protected. However, due to this, you cannot take private action against an airline that doesn’t follow the act and will need to go through the USDOT for assistance in the matter.
If you are traveling by air, the airline has a legal responsibility to ensure that their travel system is accessible to those with a disability. This can include but is by no means limited to the free carriage of mobility equipment such as your wheelchair as well as free carriage of any medical equipment or supplies. The airline must also offer complimentary carriage of assistance animals as well as providing wheelchair assistance for passengers who require this.
The airline staff should not expect you to travel with a companion except in the most extreme circumstances and should be on hand to offer assistance with various tasks such as help getting to the restroom and boarding the plane. The only time that you would be required to have a travel companion would be if you were unable to perform basic self-care tasks such as feeding yourself or if you would be unable to aid in your own evacuation, in the case of an emergency. You should not be, by law, refused service on an aircraft on the basis that you have a disability. Every service should be fully inclusive.
Planning Your Trip
Traveling takes extensive planning at the best of times, but when you have a disability, this becomes even more important. Before you head off on your journey, be sure to put the right plans in place and have everything prepared; this is the best way to ensure a smooth trip.
Let the Airline Know About Your Disability and Any Special Requirements
One of the best ways to ensure that airline staff are effectively able to provide you with the right assistance during your trip is to prepare them with the right information. When you book your ticket, there is usually an option to add any special requirements; use this to your advantage and provide as much information as possible. If there is not an option for this, you should contact the customer services department who will be able to take details of your requirements.
You can detail whether you have a handicap or whether you have an illness or medical condition, as well as offering information on the type of equipment you will need to bring with you. This might include but is not limited to portable oxygen containers (POCs), wheelchairs, or mobility scooters.
As well as discussing your needs with the airline prior to the flight, it is also important to make any necessary arrangements relating to special assistance. This might include bringing a service dog on board, the use of an oxygen container, or services to help with reduced mobility. While different airlines may have slightly different procedures for this, in general, you should be able to book services before flying.
When booking, it is important to let the airline know about any special assistance that you require. The airline will use four-character Special Service Request (SSR) codes in order to arrange the necessary assistance that you may require at the airport or/and onboard the aircraft. A list of common SSR codes relating to different needs is shown in the below table:
|SSR Status Code||Description of Assistance|
|WCHR||Wheelchair assistance is required to/from the aircraft (passenger can walk short distances and ascend/descend steps)|
|WCHS||Wheelchair assistance is required to/from the aircraft, and up & down the aircraft steps (passenger can walk short distances but not ascend/descend steps)|
|WCHC||Wheelchair assistance is required to/from the aircraft, and up and down the aircraft steps, as well as on/off the aircraft seat (passenger is unable to walk)|
|BLND||Passenger is blind or has vision impairments, and requires a walker through the airport to the aircraft seat|
|BLDP||Passenger is blind or has vision impairments, but does not require any assistance and can travel alone|
|DEAF||Passenger is deaf|
|MASS||Meet and assist|
|WCBD||Passenger is traveling with a powered wheelchair with a dry cell battery|
|WCBW||Passenger is traveling with a powered wheelchair with a wet cell battery|
|WCMP||Passenger is traveling with a manually powered wheelchair|
|WCMB||Passenger is traveling with a powered wheelchair with a lithium ion battery|
|WCOB||Passenger requires an on-board wheelchair provided by the airline|
|PPOC||Passenger is traveling with a portable oxygen concentrator|
|AOXY||Passenger requires airline supplied oxygen|
|SVAN||Passenger is traveling with a service dog|
|ESAN||Passenger is traveling with an emotional support dog|
According to the ACAA, the airline should allow you to transport your powerchair, wheelchair, POC, and any other pieces of equipment you need. However, this doesn’t mean that there might not be restrictions on how the equipment is transported. For example, in the case of a powerchair or mobility scooter, you may be required to remove the batteries during the flight and transport them separately. These regulations may vary from one airline to another, so it is vital to check this before your trip. In addition, it can be helpful to know of any weight or size limits on equipment and speak to customer services regarding how you will transport things if it exceeds these limits.
You must also consider that any special equipment you require to take with you will likely fall outside of your typical luggage allowance. For this reason, we would highly recommend checking your luggage allowances before your flight and finding out what, if any, restrictions are in place. This is especially important for people who need to take more luggage than usual.
When booking, we would also advise you to speak to the airline to reserve your seating. This will allow you to have priority for special seating that may include things like a moveable aisle armrest, an adjoining seat, or a bulkhead seat. You cannot hope to turn up at the airport on the day and expect that these seating options will be available as somebody else may have already reserved them. However, it is important to keep in mind that, as a disabled person, you have a right to preferential seating.
Airlines may be at liberty to ask you to change your seat if they feel that this is the safest option. For example, if you are traveling with a service animal, the airline may ask you to move to a bulkhead seat to comply with FAA guidelines.
The final thing that you should ensure before traveling is to check whether there are any restrictions on what medication you are allowed to take in your hand luggage. As you may already be aware, there are limits on things like medications and liquids in hand luggage, in terms of quantity and size, so it is vital that you check what you are allowed to carry and how this must be done.
Choose Your Hotel Carefully
Not all hotel rooms are designed with accessibility in mind, and this is crucial to keep in mind when booking accommodation. One of the best ways to choose the best hotel room for your needs is to check out online reviews from other disabled guests who will give a reliable and truthful account of the hotel facilities.
There are travel agents that specialize in booking rooms that are suitable for disabled travelers, so you may consider hiring one of these people. However, you can also make plans yourself. It is possible to contact the hotel directly and ask what things they have in place to make your stay more convenient. If you use a wheelchair, you will need to find out whether there are ramps to give you easy access to the building and whether elevators are in place to reach the upper levels. If there are not, you will need to request a ground floor room.
But it isn’t just getting to and from your room that may be an issue. Once inside the suite, you may find that it is difficult to navigate, so it is essential to check out the layout of the room before booking. Most hotels will have a selection of accessible rooms but these tend to be limited so booking in plenty of time will ensure you get a room that meets your needs.
While many hotels claim to have accessible rooms, you should always check with the hotel’s staff first before booking to ensure that it has all the accessible features that you may require, to make your stay comfortable. Ask for photographs or video footage of the rooms, so that you can check yourself to see if they are indeed accessible-friendly.
Book Any Required Transport to and from the Airport
For passengers traveling by air, the plane journey is just one part of the trip. You will need to ensure that you can safely get to and from the airport. In order to make sure that you have the most appropriate form of transport, you should book this in advance. While you will find cabs and buses outside most global airports, not all of these will be equipped to transport disabled passengers.
You will need to ensure that the vehicle has enough room to transport any mobility aids or special equipment. You may also wish to let the company know if you are traveling with a service animal. Most companies won’t have an issue with this and will allow your animal to travel free of charge.
After making your booking, make a note of the telephone number of the company to take with you so that you can contact them if there are any problems on the day.
Ensure That You Have Travel Insurance
We would advise anyone to take out appropriate travel insurance, but this becomes even more imperative when you are a disabled person, especially if you are traveling with mobility aids or medical equipment.
We suggest making travel insurance arrangements at the same time as booking your trip as this will give you greater peace of mind that everything is organized. When taking out a travel insurance policy, you will want to check that it covers any existing medical conditions or disabilities as well as covering your equipment. You should make sure that the policy covers you in the event that the airline cannot transport you, perhaps if the planned plane is out of commission and the replacement is not accessible. It is vital to ensure that the policy covers medical costs that are charged as a result of your disability or condition. This isn’t something that is seen on all policies so always check this first.
In most cases, there will be a limit on the amount of cover you can claim, so be sure to check this before signing anything. This is very important in all cases but even more so if you own an expensive piece of equipment such as a powerchair.
You should ensure that any travel health insurance that you take out, covers any pre-existing medical conditions, as well as possible medical emergencies. You should also check that it covers any expensive mobility aids that you will be taking with you, for loss or damage.
A Month Before Your Trip
Once all of your travel plans are in place, you could be forgiven for thinking that you can sit back and relax. However, we would suggest making further plans as your trip draws closer to ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.
Book an Appointment to See Your Doctor
Seeing your doctor before your travel will give you the peace of mind that everything to do with your medical condition or disability is dealt with and that there will be no nasty surprises while you are away. For example, it will give you an opportunity to collect any spare medicines that you may need for your journey. When you are traveling, it is essential to make sure that you have more than enough medication and not just enough for the duration of the trip. In the event of a delay or an emergency, you will be rest assured that you won’t run out.
Your doctor will be able to pen a letter that details your disability or condition, which will come in handy should you require treatment during your trip. In addition to this, when you go through TSA security, a doctor’s letter may provide you with fast-tracking where medical devices are being carried, which can take much of the stress out of the experience. You may also be expected to provide a medical certificate from your doctor stating that you are fit to travel. While this isn’t something that all airlines require, many do, so you should check this before you book your appointment.
Get a doctor’s letter before your trip that provides detailed information about your disability or medical condition. This will not only prove useful if you need any medical treatment while you are away, but it can also help to speed up the security checks if you are carrying any medication or medical aids on you.
A Week Before Your Trip
As your trip draws ever nearer, there are a few essential things to tick off your to-do list.
Check the Airport Layout
Most airports will cater to the needs of those with disabilities. However, since each airport is different, it is important to check the layout of any airport you will be visiting. You will typically find that this information is available on the airport’s website, where you will be able to find information on where wheelchair ramps are located and the location of accessible toilets.
You will also be able to find out details on suitable changing rooms and seating for disabled passengers. This information will better help you navigate the airport, so it is important to either print it out or have it saved to your mobile device for reference during the journey.
Make a List of Any Essentials You Need to Take With You
Traveling requires you to take a lot of personal belongings, and this may be even more when you have a medical condition or a disability. It is a good idea to make a list of everything you will need for your journey, most importantly, essential items. This could include your plans for the airport as well as travel documents like your passport, tickets, and hotel confirmation.
You will also need to include items such as your driver’s license, a doctor’s letter, any necessary medication, and contact numbers you may need. If you have any special equipment such as a wheelchair or any instruction manuals for your disability aids, you should include these on your list too.
1-2 Days Before Your Trip
Most of your travel plans will be made by now, but in the days before leaving, there are a few final preparations you will need to make.
Make Sure You Have All Your Essentials Packed
Pack your luggage well in advance of leaving; the last thing you want to do is to leave it until the last minute and risk forgetting something. Using the list you made, add things to your bag and cross these off as you go.
Airlines provide you with a certain baggage allowance. If this is exceeded, you may be charged to carry the additional weight. Once your bags are packed, weigh them to ensure that they are within the given parameters. Any mobility devices you use should be free of charge to transport but do keep in mind that you are only permitted to take two before there will be a charge.
Pack Any Medication That You May Require into Separates Bags
If you take any medication then it is a good ideal to split this across all of your luggage. If a bag gets lost, you will still have a supply of medication. We would always advise taking a little more than you need in the case of an emergency or delay.
When placing the medication into your bag, be sure to put it somewhere that it is easily accessible such as a side pocket.
Make Sure Any Medical Devices You Need To Take Are Easily Transportable
If you are taking any mobility devices on your trip, you should ensure that they are correctly stored by folding them and storing them in a transport bag. Of course, this only applies if you will not require the use of the device during the journey. Airlines require that disabled people use a manual wheelchair when on the flight, so your power chair will need to be stored in cargo. However, it is the responsibility of the airline to return the chair to you before you disembark.
Mobility scooter batteries will need to be removed for the flight and most airlines will require that the battery is stored in a special container. All batteries that are installed in mobility scooters or power chairs are non-spillable, meaning that they are safe to transport. However, if you are using a lithium ion battery, this will need to be transported in its own special case.
When transporting your wheelchair, be sure to remove any parts that come away, such as bags, cushions, and wheels. You should also provide instructions on how to handle the chair for the airline staff. Items such as crutches, prosthetics, and walkers are considered to be assistive devices and are usually permitted for transportation within the cabin.
Contact the Airline
You may have spoken to the airline at the time of booking about your special requirements, but if not, now is a good time to contact them and let them know what you need. You will need to let them know if you are taking a service animal or any mobility equipment, as well as detailing what help you may need from the assistants at the airport gate.
Some passengers may require a specific type of seating and the airline is required to provide you with this. However, it has to be available and so getting in touch in the days prior to the flight will help to ensure you are given priority. All airlines are required to follow FAA safety standards where seating is concerned and there are various options that may make the journey more comfortable for you, which include:
- Seats with a moveable armrest in the aisle for passengers who cannot transfer into a fixed armrest seat.
- Those traveling with a service animal may require a bulkhead seat.
- People with immobilized or fused legs may benefit from a seat with extra legroom.
- For people who are traveling with a caregiver, adjoining seats may be available.
While the airline is required to help passengers with disabilities, there are requirements on your part. Some airlines ask that you notify them of special requirements within 24 to 48 hours of flying, whereas others may need you to contact them 72 hours in advance. This is something you should always check.
Getting to the Airport
While the flight may be the main part of your journey, getting to the airport requires careful planning too
Get to the Airport with Plenty of Time to Spare
The last thing you want is to feel rushed when you arrive at the airport, so be sure to get there with plenty of time to spare. We would recommend arriving at least three hours before your departure time. This will allow you lots of time to check-in, go through security, and board the flight. This additional time will also ensure that you aren’t rushed when taking apart your mobility equipment and removing the battery.
The airline may require a little more time to make sure that all of your needs are met. If you have a staff member helping you with boarding, they are required to allow you a bathroom break and provide your service animal with a respite stop. Once you are ready to board, you are able to get on the plane ahead of other passengers, should you need to.
At the Airport
Getting through the airport may feel like a mammoth task, but with some careful planning, things will go much more smoothly.
When you arrive at the check-in desk, you should inform the assistant of any special requirements you have and let them know that you have contacted the airline in advance. In many cases, airlines will have already arranged for someone to meet and assist you, but if not, the check-in desk will arrange this at the time.
You should check any medical equipment or luggage that won’t be needed on the plane but ensure you keep any medication with you. If you are using a wheelchair, you can take this to the gate, but if it is a power chair, you won’t be able to take it into the cabin.
If you are taking medical or mobility equipment, take the corresponding operating manuals in your hand luggage with you. The airline may require additional information about these devices, so this can help to speed up the check-in process.
Disabled passengers may be eligible to sign up as a TSA Precheck member, which provides you with a 5-year membership to make security checks much easier. Members are not required to remove their shoes, nor do they need to remove things like belts, light jackets, or laptops. You will also not be required to have a security pat-down which some disabled people may find invasive. In most cases, this fast-track service will see you through security in 5 minutes or less and is available at more than 200 US airports.
If you have a doctor’s note with you, you should show this to the TSA staff to demonstrate that you do require any mobility devices you have with you. This is imperative to prevent delays during the security checks.
Boarding the Plane
While you will not be able to take a power chair into the cabin, you are permitted to use this right up to the departure gate. At this point, the airline staff will transport it to the cargo hold. However, if you are unable to board the plane without a wheelchair, the airline will provide you with one for transfer. In some cases, a lift may be used to further assist with boarding.
In some airports, the plane may not be directly located outside of the gate, in which case, you will be required to board a shuttle bus. Again, airline staff will be happy to assist you, simply communicate your needs at the gate.
It is possible to pre-board the plane, and this allows you more space and time to get comfortable as well as giving you the benefit of choosing the most appropriate seating. Airlines have specially trained staff who will be able to provide you with the correct assistance, but once again, it is essential to communicate your needs.
On the Plane
There is a legal requirement that all planes with a passenger capacity of more than 60, must have an accessible bathroom. However, if you are not on a plane with an accessible bathroom, it may be worth selecting a seat close to the lavatory. While staff can provide you with assistance getting to the bathroom, they cannot help you whilst inside.
You should keep in mind that airline staff are there to help you with stowing your luggage in the overhead lockers. Even if you previously stated that assistance is not required, you can ask for help at any time. However, if you realize mid-flight that you may need help when the plane lands, it is a good idea to notify staff before the descent.
At Your Destination
Once the plane lands, you may require assistance disembarking and getting out of the airport. Staff are there to help you, so be sure to be aware of what is on offer to you.
Wait for Assistance
If you have notified the cabin crew during the flight that you require assistance upon landing, allow them time to come to you and provide this. If English is not your first language or if you have problems communicating, then it can be a good idea to have written details of your requirements to allow staff to help you more easily.
Check the Condition of Your Mobility Device
While most airlines will take great care to look after your mobility equipment, there may be times that damage occurs. Before leaving the airport, we would strongly suggest that you check over the device for signs of damage that were not previously there (it can be helpful to take photos before departing so that you can prove any damage).
If you do notice anything, you are within your rights to file a claim to cover the cost of the repairs.
Take photographic evidence of any mobility aids you’re taking with you before your trip. In the event the airline damages or loses any of these devices, you will have a much stronger case when claiming for compensation.
Flying With a Service Dog
The ACAA does not only see dogs as being a service animal. They will accept any animal provided that it has been trained to provide assistance in a physical or emotional capacity. However, keep in mind that the ADA does not define service animals in the same way.
Airlines are required to accommodate service animals within reason but there are limitations on this. For example, if the dog is too large to be safely transported or if it poses a safety risk to other passengers. Dogs that cause too much disruption may be denied travel. The airline will view the behavior of the animal and check for obvious signs that it is a service animal.
If you are flying with a service animal, ensure that you take any necessary documentation from your vet with you, including vaccination records and medical documents.