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Travelers with general disabilities

The key travel firms catering to travelers with all sorts of disabilities
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Americans with disabilities are the largest minority in the country, over 54 million persons. Yet until recently, and especially before passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, they were not well treated by the travel industry, and numerous vacation possibilities were effectively barred to them. And even when travel industries were friendly to people with disabilities, many times a lack of money destroyed a person’s chance of taking part (a recent census survey found that 28% of people with a severe disability were below the poverty rate). With a growing, national sensitivity to their plight, reflected not merely in words but in legislation, the situation is today improving, though much remains to be done. Enforcement of the law is spotty, implementation is slow, and a great many travel facilities have not yet been adapted to the needs of our fellow citizens with impairments.

The key advance has been in the creation of travel organizations and tour companies for those with disabilities, a movement that is still in its very earliest years. These fledgling firms, many of them actually headed by persons who themselves are affected by disabilities, have already enabled thousands of others to enjoy the rewards of travel, and they are capable of assisting even greater numbers if their existence becomes known.

I have described a number of them below, hoping that such publicity will assist their growth and increase their resources. The companies have been grouped by me according to the type of traveler with disability in which they specialize.

Search Beyond Adventures, Inc.
4603 Bloomington Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55407
phone 800/800-9979 (in Mpls.-St. Paul area call 612/721-2800)

Kailash Dhaksinamurthi founded Search Beyond Adventures in 1979 as a wilderness adventure company specializing in the developmentally challenged and mobility impaired traveler. Over the years, however, S.B.A. has truly become a worldwide tour operator, reaching destinations across the globe, from Iceland to Vietnam.

Aside from its large repertoire of destinations and tours, the company’s forte is its ability to match each disabled traveler with just the right-sized group—the appropriate staff-to-vacationer ratio—to suit their needs and level of independence. Group sizes range from 4 to 30 travelers, but the staff to vacationer ratios only range from 1:2 to 1:4.

It is crucial to understand, however, that at SBA travelers are not grouped according to disability, but rather according to how much individual attention they require, and how mobile they are. In other words, there is no differentiation between the blind, the hearing impaired, the developmentally impaired, and the mobility impaired, etc; differentiation is made based on level of mobility and overall independence.

The pros and cons to this approach are considerable. The downside is that a traveler with one set of needs may not wish to be lumped indiscriminately in a group of people with different needs; e.g., a visually impaired traveler may find it pointless and inconvenient to be the only visually impaired person in a group of mobility impaired travelers.

On the other hand, a visually impaired traveler could opt for a group with a 1:1 ratio, thus acquiring the two services most needed by a blind traveler: an individual guide and a good descriptor.

The bottom line: no matter what your needs are, Search Beyond Adventures can accommodate you with the appropriate ratio, so that even someone demanding constant one-on-one attention can participate in group travel.

Those looking to travel with SBA will eventually pass a screening, in which the Special Assistance coordinator will determine how much special attention traveler requires, and how mobile the traveler is. The Special Assistance coordinator will then suggest the appropriate tour category.

Search Beyond launches about 175 all-inclusive tours each year, the majority of which are of the “Regular Tours” category, (that is, a 1:4 staff-vacationer ratio for ambulatory travelers). Among the U.S. tours, the most popular destinations are Florida and California, (which often includes time at either Disney World or Disneyland), and the Music City tours, which travel to Memphis, Nashville, Branson and New Orleans. Plenty of the New England and Mid Atlantic states are available, as well as Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Alaska, and Hawaii. Camping trips, cruises, and baseball game outings are also available, as well as a number of international trips to Europe, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Sri Lanka and Africa. The shortest tours are four days long, the longest are 11 days. Prices vary, depending on the length of the trip, the destination, and the category.

Some examples: a three-day “football tour” to Boston, Florida or St. Paul, Minnesota, with visits to games and local attractions for just $400; a five-day Disney trip will start at $565 land-only. The lower the staff-vacationer ratio, the higher the price: so a six-day “Special Assistance” Disney / Orlando trip is $2,030 if departing from New York. All tours are all inclusive. To order its free 18-page full color catalogue and a list of departure prices, send an e-mail them or call its toll free number.

Catholic Travel Office
10018 Cedar Lane
Kensington, Maryland 20895
phone 301/530-8963, fax 301/530-6614

Has arranged (for nearly 50 years) for persons with disabilities to travel to Lourdes and other Catholic shrines in Europe. Each fall (September 14 to 23 in 2003), it operates a large group trip (usually about 300 people) for persons with disabilities going to Lourdes. Accompanying the group are doctors, nurses, and paramedics. According to former manager Marie Gehringer, the key aspect of these journeys is the balm and comfort they bring to participants. “The spiritual healing is unbelievable,” she reports. “On one recent trip we had a 25-year-old man who was dying of a brain tumor. Throughout the trip, he came out of himself, pushing those who were in wheelchairs, helping the blind visitors. He later remarked, before he died, that the trip had helped him come to peace with himself.” Prices for the Lourdes pilgrimage start at $1,595 with flights from New York, $1,695 from Washington, D.C., $1,765 from Chicago, and $1,895 including air from San Francisco.

Wilderness Inquiry
808 14th Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516
phone/TTY 800/728-0719, fax 612/676-9401

Unlike the other organizations that we’ve listed in this article thus far, the primary focus of Wilderness Inquiry is to integrate tourists with disabilities with the able-bodied for vacations in which everyone learns about nature and each other.

Wilderness Inquiry has hosted people of all levels and types of disabilities, including quadriplegics, deaf persons, blind persons, and the developmentally disabled. (A past kayaking trip, for example, to Isle Royal in Lake Superior was composed of three staff members, four able-bodied participants, a camper with cerebral palsy, a blind person, a person with a severe heart condition and another who had sustained a traumatic brain injury). The trips are rugged, yet relaxed in their pace, almost all involving camping. Participants are expected to help out with the daily chores (cooking, pitching tents, cleaning up, etc.) according to their abilities. The organization tries to put together groups in which the ability levels are balanced, to ensure that there is no undue burden on any of the participants.

Most of Wilderness Inquiry’s trips are reasonably priced, averaging $100 a day (or less), which covers all meals, equipment, instruction and staff. Popular ventures include a skiing and dog sledding trip in Northern Minnesota, a six-day canoeing trip through the Florida Everglades (including a visit to Shark Valley Nature Preserve with a lecture by a noted naturalist), a canoe trip through the Canyonlands and a 7 day “Lewis and Clark” canoe trip, which followed the famed explorers route down the Missouri River. In addition, Wilderness Inquiry sponsors a few international outings every year, to destinations such as Costa Rica and Australia.

Jubilee Sailing Trust
Hazel Road
Woolston, Southampton SO19 7GB
phone 011-23-8044-9108, fax 011-23-8044-9145

A mix of able-bodied and disabled passengers regularly embark on sailing adventures aboard the “Tenacious” and the “Lord Nelson,” two huge 19th century style vessels. From afar these ships appear to be no different than the historic ones that have been turned into museums in the U.S. But the design of “Tenacious” and “Lord Nelson” (each of which were built within the last twenty years) have adaptations for persons with disabilities, including flat, wide decks that are wheelchair-friendly, lifts between decks for those who cannot negotiate steps or ladders, extra-large showers, and signs in Braille. And clientele are not just passengers aboard a cruise with Jubilee. Some 40 passengers (a maximum of 20 may have disabilities) actually become crewmembers on the ships, and each person must keep a four-hour watch every 16 hours on the high seas. Crewmembers are not expected to have any background as sailors, and will be taught how to set, stow, and brace the sails, tie knots, and steer the ship. Also, one hour each morning is set aside to clean the ship, and all are expected to help out.

Most participants with disabilities use wheelchairs, but a variety of people with disabilities take part. There are about 60 different trips offered each year ranging from four days to four weeks. Summer sailings call at the major British and French ports; in winter the ships sail to the Canary Islands and the Caribbean. Trips start at $750; financial assistance is available. Prices are kept low in large part due to donations and corporate sponsors.

Access Adventures

206 Chestnut Ridge Road
Rochester, New York 14624
phone 716/889-9096

Another specialist in customized itineraries for a broad variety of handicapped travelers, Access Adventures plans vacations for 500 to 600 persons per year. It is owned and operated by a determined former director of a rehabilitation center, Deborah Lisena-Tyo, who aims to make the entire globe accessible.

“I never say no,” she says. “It’s always ‘no problem’, or ‘we’ll figure it out.’ I don’t want to reinforce anyone’s fears. I use my rehab counseling skills as much as my travel agent skills.” Recently, she planned a trip for a paraplegic customer wanting to visit his childhood home in India—a tough assignment, she admits, but not one that she’d turn down. Around the same time, she arranged a trip for a woman with a circulatory disorder—she could not stand or sit for more than two hours at a time, but wanted to take her family to Australia. Ms. Lissena-Tyo was able to arrange for Qantas to provide the use of five seats at a reasonable, discounted price. This allowed her to lie down for a good part of the flight. Once “Down Under,” the family traveled in an oversized station wagon, booked by Access, that once again accommodated the client’s special needs.

Occasionally (usually by special request only), Access does arrange group tours, although these tend to be for local groups in upstate New York. One summer, it arranged for the tenants of a “head injuries group home” to go to Cape Cod for a week. Access will locate nearby hotel beds for some of the travelers, find chefs to prepare “ground food” meals, and utilize a Cape Cod “independent living center” for such further help as the group may need. Customized “Day Trip Adventures” to sites such as Niagara Falls, the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Canada.

Yates Travel

An expert in cruises (and a personal friend of my wife for many years), Ms. Yates’ greatest triumph was recently arranging a cruise to Bermuda for two 94-year-old passengers, who apparently had a fine time. The veteran herself of many cruises, and a former executive with a mental health organization, Ms. Yates specializes in the cruise needs of a wide variety of persons with disabilities, and in the similar needs of elderly persons.

Wheel Coach Services, Inc.

Sion Farm Commercial Center B7
Christiansted, St. Croix
U.S. Virgin Islands 00820
phone 340/719-9335, fax 340/773-1414

Travelers with disabilities including dialysis needs, restricted movement, or just those who are slow walkers can enjoy a tour of the beautiful island of St. Croix by way of Wheel Coach Services. Wheel Coach does not usually arrange for entire vacations. Instead, it specializes in tours of the island (usually four hours long, costing $55 for those in wheelchairs, $45 for companions). Each vehicle can fit only two or three wheelchairs, so the exact itinerary is up to the customers. Usually the tour involves a scenic drive, and visits to a rum factory, a sugar plantation, and a botanical gardens. Wheel Coach can also make individualized arrangements for accessible activities for the disabled and equipment rentals.

Society for the Advancement of Travel by the Handicapped
347 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10016
phone 212/447-7284

For disabilities that are not described in the foregoing discussion, travelers are always well-advised to contact The Society for the Advancement of Travel by the Handicapped (“S.A.T.H.”), whose experts can usually suggest a source of assistance. Murray Vidockler, founder and funder of S.A.T.H., is one of the great human beings of the travel industry, and he is ably assisted by Peter Shaw-Lawrence, the fiery advocate for those with disabilites who is treasurer of the organization. In recent years, S.A.T.H. has begun publication of a periodical magazine for travelers with disabilities, called “Open World,” that has quickly reached a high professional level and is absorbing to read, in addition to carrying many fact-filled, usable articles and advertisements on travel by the handicapped. Subscriptions in the U.S. and its possessions are $13 per year, and you can order one free issue online. For subscribers in Canada and all foreign countries, add $8. Checks should be made payable to SATH Publications.