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Traveling for disabled improves, but hurdles remain

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.
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.Farhad Berahman / AP
/ Source: contributor

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 .

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

“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.”