Americans with disabilities are the largest minority in the country, over 54 million persons. And within that group, persons with mobility impairments make up a substantial percentage. Below, we profile the top travel firms catering to this important population.
Flying Wheels Travel Service
143 West Bridge
Owatonna, MN 55060
phone 507/451-5005, fax 507/451-1685.
Serves more than 500 mobility-impaired travelers a year. Destinations are always inspected in advance by a staff member, and trips operated in association with tour companies at the destination. The key to a successful trip, says president and founder, Barbara Jacobson, is attitude at the destination as much as accessibility; in many nations, disabilities are regarded with loathing, the blind or mobility-impaired hidden out of sight or made into beggars, so that travelers are confronted by the prejudices of the cultures they visit, and may have to deal with the emotional stresses that result. Attitude in turn leads to inaccessibility, the failure by the host nation to create access for those with disabilities. “If you want to go to Syria or Egypt (for example), you’re going to get lifted.” Flying Wheels recommends travelers allow three months for the planning of a trip, so that they can fully explore with the client the different features of each location.
“The market is rapidly changing,” says Ms Jacobson, referring to progress in the field.” When we began in 1970, we could only handle escorted domestic tours, primarily to Hawaii and Disneyland. Now we go to all parts of the globe, offer cruises and customized itineraries.” Ever since passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, she points out, domestic travel in particular has been much less stressful, as more and more hotels and restaurants make their facilities accessible.
1580 Orchard St.
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
phone 707/887-7905 or fax 707/542-6274
In addition to operating tours of the wine country of northern California, and tours for gay and lesbian travelers to anywhere, Sunset provides customized itineraries for mobility-impaired persons, both domestic and international, and has done so for the last 11 years. Its founder, Linda Reitzell, was herself disabled by a head on collision in 1990. Her approach, from our own conversations with her, seems highly professional but pleasant.
Founded by Howard McCoy in 1985 to provide travel opportunities for people who were mobility-impaired. “We’re not an able-bodied travel agency that sets up a wing to attract more business,” he explains. “This is all we’ve ever done in travel.”
According to Howard, what sets his company apart is that he has also remained personally committed to his original goals. Staff members from Accessible Journeys check out all of the sites, hotels and modes of transportation. “Every place we send visitors to we’ve been. We do all the site inspections and all the hotel inspections, and can tell people what to expect. For example, a visitor to India who wants to visit the Taj Mahal can expect to navigate 21 very tall steps up to the first level. We hire porters to lift people in their wheelchairs up the steps. We tell people before they take their trips that this is basically the only way to see that site, so there are no surprises later on-and then they can either book the tour or not. Whatever they are comfortable with.”
Accessible Journeys offers more than 40 different international tours and cruises a year and half a dozen domestic ones, many of which are then personally accompanied by Mr. McCoy. His clients come from all over the English-speaking world, and while he can provide them with airfare to the starting place of the tours, he finds that most people prefer to use frequent flyer miles, or wait for special deals. The company also creates customized itineraries for those desiring them, and finds licensed companions for passengers needing such assistance.
On his first day in Australia, Andy Huesing, who has a spinal cord injury, met a gentleman crossing the street named Rod Gothe. Both men had just arrived Down Under, and both were in wheelchairs. Both men had also noticed, on their arrival, the need for a company that would service travelers with disabilities. “So we set out on our own,” says Huesing, “literally rolling from hotel to hotel, venue to venue, finding the best places to form the foundation of an accessible tour.”
Today, NeverLand Adventures boasts four to five group tours to Australia and New Zealand a year, and is recognized by the Australian Tourist Commission as the #1 specialist for disabled travelers to Australia. While the company is angled towards travelers with mobility impairments, its owners assure us that their “ultimate goal is to service as many types of people as possible.” Clients have included people who are both visually and hearing impaired, and travelers with spinal cord injuries, M.S., M.D., cerebral palsy, Lou Gehrig’s disease, spina bifida, brittle bone disease, diabetes, cancer, and slow walkers.
To co-owner and founder Andy Huesing, the integrity of the holiday is a key concern. “There is a misconception that in order for a trip to be accessible it has to sacrifice a lot,” says Huesing. “That was our biggest challenge. We wanted no compromises on our trips. We wanted our customers to be as free as possible on our trips, without the usual entanglements of disabled travel. This part is the most fun for me—seeing quadriplegics swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, people with M.S. riding camels in the outback, and 86-year-old women bungee jumping!” It is no wonder the company is named NeverLand Adventures: “In the Peter Pan mythos, NeverLand was a place of freedom and adventure where you never grew old—very in line with or philosophies,” says Huesing.
Groups are never larger than 12 customers, served by two or three staff and a bus driver. The company offers two-week tours in Australia and New Zealand starting at $3,400, and this includes absolutely everything except your flight to Australia: all transportation within Australia, hotels, meals, activities, motorcoach, scuba, and whatever else you do. For those wishing to experience the Outback, including Ayers Rock and Alice Springs, NeverLand offers a three-week Outback tour for $4,500, not including airfare. In addition, NeverLand Adventures plans to begin bringing Aussies to the U.S. in the near future.
Offers a variety of travel services for people with disabilities visiting Australia. Travel packages are usually customized based on type of disability and what the traveler would like to see. SeeMore arranges for accommodations, airport transfers, scooter and wheelchair rentals, transportation, and all kinds of tours (wine tasting tours are one of its specialties) to all parts of Australia. SeeMore also offers guided tours that cost as little as $25 for half-day or $35 for full-day itineraries, based on ten people taking part.
EXPERTS IN THE AMERICAN WEST
P.O. Box 499
Victor, ID 83455
An idealistic, non-profit group that offers educational and environmentally-proper tours of the American West. Its director, Clint Gross, was one of the early white water river runners. When rafting became too commercial for his tastes, and tourism to the West became saturated with tour companies that had “no empathy for the indigenous peoples and with the land itself,” Mr. Gross left the travel business. A few years later, a quadriplegic friend of his came to visit, and Mr. Gross was intrigued about forming a tour company for persons with ambulatory disorders—slow walkers and persons needing wheelchairs.
He has, he says, a “passion” for teaching people the natural and human history of the American West, and wants his tours to be different from the standard. “I want people to be aware of where they’ve been. I detest the motor coach companies. Their idea of seeing Yellowstone is to breeze in from one side and go out the other—an average stay of five hours! When you ask the tourists afterwards where they’ve been, they have to re-read their postcards. They don’t remember.” On his tours, a maximum of 11 passengers form the group that visits the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the South West, and “other special areas of the American West.” Tours are usually about eight to ten days each, traveling at a leisurely pace to “soak up the sights,” as Mr. Gross offers a running commentary on the history of the location.
Access Tours runs four or five scheduled departures a year, and also will do custom itineraries for groups of six people or more. They’ve been in business since 1989.
Trains scuba instructors around the world in how to teach and dive with mobility impaired divers. In addition, the H.S.A. offers two or three group tours a year, for approximately 11 handicapped participants each. The trips are reasonably priced: The 2003 trip to Bonaire, for example, cost $920 for six days of diving and include all dives,hotels and ground transportation to and from the airport. For those who wish to travel on their own, the HSA provides, free of charges, a well researched “resort evaluation program”. They have lists of scuba resorts, in almost all the major destinations, ranked by the accessibility of hotel facilities (i.e. roll-in showers, wide enough doors, etc.), and the expertise of the diving staff in dealing with divers with disabilities. The list is available on the organization’s Web site, or you can call and someone will send it to you free of charge.
LIFT EQUIPPED VANS AND SCOOTER RENTALS
PO Box 605
Versailles, KY 40383
The Hertz or Avis of the wheelchair set, this company rents lift-equipped vans and mini-vans with hand-controls (when specially requested). Most of Wheelchair Getaway’s vehicles have either raised roofs or lowered floors, four-point wheelchair tie down with seat belts and power steering, locks and windows. Franchises are in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington State, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. While the company does not provide drivers or guides, the owners of their franchises, according to president Richard Gatewood, are knowledgeable in the needs of mobility impaired travelers and happy to advise on local restaurants and recreational facilities. The company was founded in 1989.
584 Pembina Highway, Suite 208
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3M 3X7
phone 888/441-7575 or 204/982-0657, fax 204/478-1172
“It all began when my father had a stroke,” explained co-owner Lee Meagher. “We wanted to travel and not have to bring his scooter with us, but we found it near impossible to find scooters to rent. There’s rarely a category for them in the yellow pages, and the companies that do rent them, often don’t advertise it. They concentrate on sales and maintenance. So you really have to do a lot to find them.” In the course of their travels, she, her father and her brother, were able, through laborious research, to find scooters in every city they wanted to visit. Not wanting to let their hard-won information go to waste, and recognizing that there must be many others in the same situation, they decided to found ScootAround. Currently, ScootAround serves as a network of scooter-rental companies in every major tourist and business destination in the United States and Canada. There are some 500 cities on its roster, including New York, Detroit, Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Honolulu, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and even San Juan, Puerto Rico, Amsterdam, and several cities in France. The company rates start at $110 for a three-day rental (it varies by location). In addition to scooters, it deals in manual and electric wheelchair rentals.
A CLEARINGHOUSE FOR INFORMATION, RUN BY A “GENIUS”
Mobility International USA
PO Box 10767
Eugene, OR 97440
phone 541/343-1284, fax 541/343-6812
Mobility International manages the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. Its stated goals are to “work to educate people with disabilities and disability related organizations about international educational exchange opportunities ... and community and volunteer service programs.” What does this mean? Well, if you or someone you know who has a physical disability, wants to go abroad to study (i.e. taking a course at a distant University), for work or to volunteer, M.I. will research the facilities of whatever institution you’re interested in, free of charge. Want to do an exchange program? Call M.I. first—-it can give you in-depth information on all the programs that are out there, and which best facilitate individuals with disabilities. Additionally, M.I. sponsors cultural exchanges themselves with the goals of “leadership training, community service, cross cultural experiential learning and advocacy for the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities.” M.I. publishes a comprehensive guide called “A World of Options” which describes everything “from spending a year as a high school student in Spain, to receiving on-the-job training in Denmark; from volunteering with grassroots organizations in Mexico, to being a college student studying in France; to becoming a Fulbright scholar in Ghana.” To learn more, visit its informative Web site.
In 2000, Susan Sygall, foudner of M.I., received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant.”
OUTDOOR ADVENTURES THAT MIX ABLE-BODIED AND DISABLED TRAVELERS
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, 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 to Isle Royal in Lake Superior, for example, 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 recent ventures have included 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 seven-day “Lewis and Clark” canoe trip, which followed the famed explorers route down the Missouri River. In addition, Wilderness Inquiry sponsors a few international excursions per year, such as Costa Rica and Australia.
A mix of people with disabilities and the able-bodied regularly embark on sailing adventures aboard the “Tenacious” and the “Lord Nelson,” two huge 19th century style vessels that are each less than two decades old. It is easy to let one’s imagination run away on a cruise aboard one of these, and pretend you are a pirate or an epic explorer. 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” have many features special for those 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 sailing 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.
Adventures Within is a small non-profit organization that arranges skiing and outdoors trips for people affected with Multiple Sclerosis. Charlotte Robinson, director of Adventures Within, founded the organization soon after she was diagnosed with MS at the age of 26. Considering 40 percent of participants are repeat customers, this operation certainly seems to offer quality programs. Price is one reason these programs are so popular. Rates for a five-day ski vacation at the Breckenridge Resort in the Colorado Rockies, including special ski equipment rentals, private lessons, lodgings, and nearly all meals, cost just $425 per person. Transportation to Breckenridge is not included, however. Four to five-day outdoors trips in the summer (canoeing, camping, horseback riding, rock climbing, etc.) are also reasonable, costing between $375 and $425.
Epic Enabled specializes in safari-style visits to South Africa for people in wheelchairs and those otherwise mobility impaired. Small groups (usually four to 12 people) tour through beautifully preserved spots such as Kruger National Park in a spacious Mercedes truck that is fully equipped for wheelchairs and people with disabilities. Accommodations during tours are tents, cottages, and rustic bungalows, and participants are expected to help out with washing dishes, building campfires, and other chores. In exchange for your work, prices are kept very low. An eight-day tour of Kruger National Park, including transfers to and from the airport in Johannesburg, three meals a day, and all entrance fees, starts at $825 per person. Day tours of Johannesburg and Cape Town start at $25 and $45, respectively. Each of Epic Enabled’s tours has several opportunities to get out, see the beauty of South Africa, and get an up-close look at some of the world’s most amazing wildlife.
TOURS OF ST. CROIX
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 elderly, 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.