Traveling With a Disability: What You Need to Know

woman in wheelchair by beachWoman in wheel chair on boardwalk
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From shrinking airplane bathrooms to public transportation, disabled travelers face added layers of stress on the road.

Consumer Affairs recently reported that the Government Accountability Office, an independent federal watchdog agency, found that in the air travel industry, disability-related complaints doubled from 2005 to 2015, topping out at more 30,000 complaints for the most recent year that data was available. The situation for disabled travelers is never simple, but with growing public awareness and activists working for change, the future might hold and easier trip for everyone.

Shrinking aircrafts, growing problems

In airlines’ efforts to pack more passengers into each flight, one thing that’s been sacrificed is bathroom space. In the newer model planes that are flown by Delta, United, and American, bathrooms in coach are a meager 24 inches wide. While it’s a struggle for tall or obese people, the task of squeezing into such a compact space can be even more difficult for someone with a physical disability. But according to the aircraft manufacturer, the smaller restroom accommodates six more passenger seats. And that’s to say nothing of shrinking seats and less aisle space in newer-model jets.

Disabled passengers’ complaints on the rise

Maneuvering an aircraft is only one challenge that physically disabled travelers face. In addition to structural and design limitations, there are plenty of other issues that can be a hassle, if not a nightmare, for people with limited mobility. Earlier in November, Consumer Affairs reported that “customers with disabilities say that they are regularly mistreated during air travel, with one of the more common problems being airline staff that lose or break their personal wheelchairs—leaving passengers who can’t walk completely stranded and without a medical device worth thousands of dollars.” This is especially problematic because unlike lost or mishandled luggage, there are no reporting requirements under federal law for wheelchair damage. But being prepared can lead to a speedier solution should the worst case scenario come to fruition. The Department of Transportation recommends taking a photograph of your wheelchair or assistance device ahead of travel to capture its condition and providing written instructions detailing the disassembly, assembly, and stowage of your device.

The federal government’s protections

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website, a disability is defined as a “physical or mental impairment that impacts a major life activity—such as walking, hearing, or breathing.” This applies to temporary disabilities, like a broken leg, as well as permanent ones. The DOT is responsible for enforcing the Air Carrier Access Act, the federal law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability. Airlines are required to provide disabled passengers with various means of assistance, like wheelchairs or other guided help to board, deplane, or connect to another flight. They must also offer seating-accommodation assistance that meets passengers’ individual needs and help with loading and stowing assistive devices.

Further protections could be coming down the line. In 2016, the Obama administration said that by 2018, all US airlines would be required “to report on how often they mishandle wheelchairs so air travelers with disabilities can easily compare carriers and make informed travel decisions.” After initial agreement from the airline industry, companies requested the new rules be put on hold under the new administration.

Advice from disabled travelers

When it comes to planning a trip, accessibility concerns are first and foremost, from hotels and tourist attractions to public transportation and taxis. In interviews recently published by Healthline, a health and wellness website, disabled influencers offered their recommendations for dealing with travel’s many challenges. Vilissa Thompson, a disability rights consultant, writer and activist who founded Ramp Your Voice (rampyourvoice.com), an organization focused on empowerment, notes that when planning a trip, she double-checks her flight reservation days before she flies to make sure her wheelchair use is noted, and she makes it a priority to figure out public transit and airport transfers ahead of time. Cory Lee Woodard, a prolific blogger (curbfreewithcorylee.com), notes that taking direct flights reduces the risk of his wheelchair being damaged. Australia-based blogger Stacey Christie (lovemoxieblog.com) says the best way for disabled passengers to negotiate travel challenges is via personal advice from the many disabled travel blogs on the web. Her own site is a great place to start.

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