Image: Zuhair Mahmoud
Farhad Berahman  /  AP
Zuhair Mahmoud of Arlington, Va., says he was stopped from boarding a flight Oct. 5 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, because he is blind and was traveling alone.
By contributor
updated 11/4/2010 4:16:40 PM ET 2010-11-04T20:16:40

As the holidays approach, even die-hard travelers cringe thinking about bad weather, long lines and flight delays. But two recent incidents reflect how traveling can be especially challenging for people with disabilities.

In October, a blind American man was turned away from a flight from Dubai to Amman, Jordan, on flydubai because of his disability and the fact that he was flying alone, a move the government-run airline said it regrets. At Palm Beach International Airport, a traveler with cerebral palsy boarded a US Airways plane, destined for Kansas City, but was asked to deboard after an airline employee determined that he was too disabled to fly alone .

Video: Too disabled to fly? (on this page)

“I’m flabbergasted by it,” said Lex Frieden, professor of biomedical informatics and rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, of the incident aboard US Airways. “Things happen despite rules that say they shouldn’t.”

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Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group serving disabled people, said the passenger or the gate attendant in the US Airways case should have asked for a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO). With a properly trained CRO, “it could have been settled quickly at the gate,” Lipp said.

Airlines may require a disabled passenger to fly with an attendant, and the passenger may be denied boarding if he or she does not agree to it. However, if the passenger agrees, it is the airline’s responsibility to find an attendant, at its expense, said Lipp.

Open Doors has worked with several domestic carriers on training and policy issues, and along with the International Air Transport Association, has instructed training sessions for more than 25 commercial airlines.

“The airlines want to improve,” he said.

Open Doors estimates that people with disabilities spend about $15 billion annually on travel. And as life expectancy grows, the number of people with disabilities is expected to increase. By 2030, nearly a quarter of the American population is expected to have some disability, Lipp said.

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Some experts say bad experiences are rare and overshadow progress that has made traveling easier for people with disabilities. Recent improvements include strengthened laws, better training for service personnel, more wheelchair-accessible taxis and rental vans, greater availability of rental cars with hand controls, and a growing number of websites for people with dexterity or vision problems.

“I’ve been flying for more than four decades,” said Frieden, whose spinal cord injury after a traffic crash in 1967 left him a quadriplegic. Today, people “are much more sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities.” But “traveling is not an exact science.”

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Traveling abroad
The Air Carrier Access Act now extends coverage to flights by foreign airlines originating or landing in the United States, or ticketed through American carriers. Airlines are required to provide accommodations for people who travel with oxygen and other respiratory assistance, fly with service animals or have impaired hearing or vision. If a passenger is unable to use automated kiosks to check in or to print boarding passes, the airlines are required to provide assistance at the kiosk or allow the passenger to go to the front of the line.

Traveling overseas, however, can be difficult. In many countries, people with disabilities have very few rights, said Lipp, who walks with a brace and cane and uses an electric scooter since spinal cord tumors left him partially paralyzed.

Non-American carriers that do not have partnership agreements with U.S. airlines, or that do not fly in and out of the U.S., are not subject to American laws.

The cruise industry “understands the disabled market, and they actually embrace it,” Lipp said, but when you leave the ship “it could be a game changer.” In Jamaica, for example, service dogs can’t get off ships. And vision impaired travelers in Mexico may be out of luck, as hotels there are not required to accept dogs.

Problems remain
Mobility has generally improved across the nation's transit system. As new systems are built to be compliant, progress to retrofit older systems “has slowed down dramatically, and there’s going to be problems as a result,” said James Weisman, senior vice president and general counsel for the United Spinal Association, a nonprofit group. “Mass transit is strapped financially around the country.” Regardless of laws, “people with disabilities get hurt, because not everybody is going to sue.”

Amtrak was to have its stations accessible to people with disabilities by the end of this year, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was passed 20 years ago. Currently, 20 percent of Amtrak's 482 stations are compliant, Weisman said, mostly in the Northeast. “We are trying to work out a deal with them” to extend the deadline for four more years, he said. “We want it to be done intelligently.”

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Hotels, meanwhile, often meet legal obligations, but rooms are so packed with furniture, it could be almost impossible to maneuver in a wheelchair. Additionally, extra-thick mattresses make beds difficult to reach, roll-in showers are rare, but when they are available, the water controls are often too far from a shower bench, and grab bars are often inconveniently placed.

Frieden said he’s had better luck with economy hotel rooms. “They are all built to the same standard,” but in higher-end chains, rooms and bathrooms vary, he said.

Restaurants are frequently designed to be ADA compliant, but tables may be too close for a wheelchair to pass, or the restroom may be at the far end of the establishment, requiring diners to pass by other guests.

Some aircraft have less space, smaller seats and less storage than in the past.

Plan ahead
“People with disabilities have to do the same things as other savvy travelers,” Frieden said — plan ahead, allow enough time, study the options and have appropriate documents. He recommends contacting disability-specific organizations to connect to peer counselors and online groups to research options.

If you book online, Lipp recommends confirming by phone and speaking with an agent. For hotels, call directly to the property, not the 800 number. If cruises are booked through a travel agent, directly contact the “Access desk.”

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“We have a lot of people come to us after the fact with problems that could have been avoided,” said Howard J. McCoy, founder of Accessible Journeys, a tour operator focusing on wheelchair-accessible vacations. “Truly, it’s all about logistics.” But he said reports of bad experiences are often exaggerated. “Thousands of people with disabilities travel everyday, and we never hear about their successes.”

Constantine Zografopoulos, a consultant in the food service industry, is a double amputee as a result of a car crash 15 years ago, but travels extensively for work and pleasure. As executive director of the Kostas Z Foundation, a nonprofit, he often counsels people with newly diagnosed disabilities. “If you research enough and get the right information, you are going to have a good experience,” he said.

“As a person with a disability, there are good things to enjoy in life, and travel is one of them.”

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Video: Too disabled to fly?

  1. Closed captioning of: Too disabled to fly?

    >>> gut check. a man with cerebral palsy gets kicked off a flight because he's too disabled to fly. he's a motivational speaker . he uses a wheelchair and says he flies a half a million mile ls all over the country, usually alone. he was removed from a flight who told him he need ad companion to fly. johnny , thanks for joining us. we really appreciate it.

    >> it's my pleasure being here.

    >> tell me what happened.

    >> september 23rd i was flying from west palm beach to kansas city , missouri. i was going from a meeting presentation to another presentation. another gig i had to speak for. self advocates becoming empowered disability group, 20th anniversary. so i'm going to this conference. i checked in at the u.s. air desk. the same guy that checked me in said that he would meet me at the gate and he would check my chair and then he would get me on the plane in an aisle chair. i've been doing this for years. i thought, wow, this is great. i got in. i went through security. they tagged my chair. he put me in the ail chair, wheeled me on board. put me in my seat. said good-bye, have a great trip. you're a pleasure to be around, you're funny, you're good looking. i thought, you're right. and he left. like ten minutes later he came back and said we need to talk. i said, let's talk. he said, no, we need to talk outside the plane.

    >> at that point, what are you thinking, johnny ?

    >> i'm thinking somebody got some bad news. i've got family at home. one of my parents is sick. one of the kids got hurt. my wife, you know -- whatever. something is up. i wasn't thinking they're throwing me off the plane. i get off the plane and he says we've decided that your disability is too extreme and you're too disabled to fly.

    >> their response says the passenger has to be physically able to assist himself or herself in the event of an emergency. if the passenger cannot, the airline requires someone else travels with a passenger to provide assistance. that's their policy. they say it's on your website and it had been there.

    >> i've flown that airline before. i never heard of that policy. and let's remember, just because you put a policy on a website doesn't make it right or legal.

    >> you have some people who say, hey, maybe this should be a policy. after all, if something happens. like the miracle on the hudson, who would be there to hope you get safely off the plane?

    >> can i throw that question back at you. so you and i are sitting next to each other. and we land in the hudson river and i look at you and go, all right. i'm going to jump on my belly, you hop on.

    >> well, i'm going to help you, but maybe the person next to you is not physically able. maybe they're older. maybe they panic. i'm going to help you. but we can't guarantee that everyone would help you.

    >> you can't guarantee that. you also can't limit people's ability to do their job. this even a civil rights issue. this is about a guy who is a motivational speaker and a comedian, and he has a family to take care of.

    >> where does it go from here, johnny ?

    >> someone asked me are you going to sue them? of course not. i'm not an angry person. that doesn't solve anything. us air called me. apologized twice. the second time they called they said would you be willing to fly to the corporate office in phoenix, meet with us to discuss a possible solution to the situation where we made sure that doesn't happen again.

    >> and you accepted?

    >> absolutely. they're going to pay me.

    >> we wish you the best of luck. we'll be talking to you soon.

    >> that was my interview with johnny earlier. he caught a flight right after that interview, but on a different airline. what does your gut tell you about this? should people with disabilities be forced to fly with a companion? go to "news nation" to vote. curious what you'll say about


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