How can a traveler with a mobility disability experience the Caribbean?
This was the challenge facing John Sage, founder and owner of Accessible Travel Solutions, a global company he formed in 2015 that is focused exclusively on the 40 million Americans with a mobility disability.
Accessible Travel Solutions offers multiple travel product lines, including accessible guided tours, transfers, independent travel packages and escorted group trips in more a dozen Caribbean islands.
"My goal, in the Caribbean and elsewhere, is to broaden travel experiences and make travel not only possible and accessible but also exciting and enjoyable by offering a step-free, curb-free and worry-free vacation," he said.
"Many disabled travelers in the past have only experienced the Caribbean through a bus window on a drive-around tour of an island," Sage said.
Sage, a wheelchair-bound traveler himself due to a ski accident at the age of 22, has learned by trial and error of the difficulties and challenges presented by accessible travel.
"I vet all tours myself," he said. "I act as a guinea pig and set out with local operators. I tell them I want to try difficult things and find the impediments -- curbs, lack of ramps and restrooms and vans, cobblestone streets, many steps -- and then figure out how to design a tour that will overcome these hurdles."
His tours must meet five requirements: accessible transportation with wheelchair lift or ramp; accessible attractions with flat or ramped entrances; accessible restrooms with wide doors; step-free tour routes; and tour guides who are experienced with disabled tour participants.
"Meeting these requirements makes our excursions possible, but my goal is to make them enjoyable as well," Sage said.
Many of his tours are offered as shore excursions on cruises offered by Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises in a variety of different ports, and Sage said he expects several more cruise lines to come on board later this year.
"When cruise lines, travel agents or tour operators have clients with special needs, we become their single point of contact to provide accessible travel services," he said.
"Special needs travelers can actually fulfill many bucket list experiences with us."
In the Caribbean, excursions include a step-free visit to San Cristobal fort in San Juan; visits to Falmouth and Ocho Rios and river rafting on the Martha Brae in Jamaica; an afternoon on the beach in Aruba in a specially-equipped beach wheelchair that maneuvers over soft sand; a four-hour scuba experience with a dive master in St. Thomas; a tram ride through Harrison's Cave in Barbados; and a dolphin interaction at the Nassau Dolphin Experience.
Accessible Travel Solutions has offerings in 15 Caribbean destinations as well as in Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico; Belize; Roatan, Honduras; Miami and Key West and more than 50 tours in European cities. He's currently on a family cruise vacation to Alaska, researching Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway as well as glacier flights and whale-watching as possible additions to the company's roster.
Group size on most of the excursions is usually six to eight people, including the companions of disabled tour participants, he said. "Sharing tours brings down the per person price, although we do offer private escorted tours as well."