A small but growing army of travelers with special needs is emerging, fueled by a desire to experience different cultures, have adventures and collect memories much the same as most travelers.

Yet, save for a handful of agents and operators whose passion it is to advocate for and assist special-needs travelers with their plans, this market remains pretty much off the radar screens for much of the industry.

Ignoring the market of accessible travel and travelers is a mistake, according to Debra Kerper, founder of Easy Access Travel, a Cruise Planners franchise agency.

“They have money,” Kerper said. “They want to travel, and they are intrepid travelers."

A client of Easy Access Travel, a Cruise Planners franchise agency.
A client of Easy Access Travel, a Cruise Planners franchise agency.

Kerper, herself a special-needs person, has planned more than 1,000 trips for travelers with disabilities since 1992. One of her pet peeves, she said, is when people use the word “handicapped” to describe this class of traveler.

“Call them physically challenged travelers or wheelchair users or travelers with disabilities, but do not label these travelers as handicapped,” she said. “They may have limited mobility, but they are not handicapped."

Or, as another tour operator pointed out, “Call them handi-capable because they are able to surmount challenges most of us could never even imagine.”

More than 1 billion people worldwide are living with some form of disability, Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the U.N., reported in a speech commemorating the International Day of Persons With Disabilities on Dec. 3. The day has been observed annually since 1992.

“In spite of being the world’s largest minority group, persons with disabilities and the issue of disability have remained largely invisible in the mainstream development frameworks and its progress,” he said.

A disabled traveler's perspective

Maneuvering through George Bush Airport in Houston was easy enough for Jeff Meyers in his Permobil powered wheelchair, his wife at his side and a frontline United employee to get him on the plane. Meyers, a quadriplegic since 2008 following a diving accident, encountered the first obstacle upon arrival at Los Cabos Airport. Read More

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveal that approximately 54 million people in the U.S. have at least one disability, and as 10,000 people turn 65 every day, the aging of America is becoming the disabling of America.

People are living longer, and many are or will be using mobility aids.

“They still want to travel and have a passion for it,” Kerper said. “But due to lack of infrastructure to properly accommodate these travelers, many destinations miss out on tapping into this viable market. All travel agents need to know how to meet this growing need of their clients. My personal goal is to help train agents to do this properly.”

A willingness to overcome obstacles

Make no mistake: Many people with limited mobility and special needs are out there, showing up in unexpected places and doing unexpected things, from ziplining in Costa Rica and cave tubing in Belize to exploring ruins on Greek islands and helicoptering over glaciers in Alaska.

Up & Away Ballooning in California’s Sonoma region, for example, has offered wheelchair users hot-air balloon rides over the wine country since 2011.

“We do one flight a day in a special basket with a lowered rail, easy access ramp and a viewing window,” said Up & Away’s owner, Mike Kijak.

Professional dive guides accompany a disabled diver in Bonaire’s waters.
Professional dive guides accompany a disabled diver in Bonaire’s waters.

A number of dive shops on Bonaire have professional staff trained according to the guidelines of the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA). They cater to disabled divers with accessible boats that offer easy entry and exit.

Aqua Action, located at Secret Harbour Beach Resort in St. Thomas, specializes in working with the disabled and has HSA-certified instructors for snorkeling and scuba diving. In terms of equipment, aids that are available include webbed gloves to help propel snorkelers through the water and a beach wheelchair with inflated wheels for easy movement on the sand.

Access has improved over the years across all aspects of travel, and examples abound.

Cruise ships

“When I took my first cruise in 1988, there was no such thing as an accessible cabin,” Kerper said. “Just get on a cruise ship today to see the progress that’s been made.”

To illustrate how far some ships have come and to what lengths Kerper will go to deliver a cruise experience for her clients, she organized the first cruise for amputees in December 2012 aboard Royal Caribbean International’s Liberty of the Seas.

She’s since done two more and this month is taking 91 special-needs travelers, including amputees, quadriplegics and people suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) and spina bifida on a Caribbean cruise aboard the Oasis of the Seas.

Kerper and several other agents who work with special-needs clients gave especially high marks to Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises.

Travelers with Wheelchair Escapes, a specialty agency founded in 2002.
Travelers with Wheelchair Escapes, a specialty agency founded in 2002.

“I want the safety net these cruise lines provide,” Kerper said. “I am very serious about what I do, and I cannot let my clients down.”

Royal Caribbean offers 46 accessible cabins each on the Oasis and the Allure of the Seas.

Kristy Lacroix, who founded Wheelchair Escapes, said, “They’re inside cabins, outside with balconies, they’re on the Promenade and Boardwalk decks.”

Lacroix said she founded her specialty agency in 2002 after encountering numerous nightmares on travels with her husband, Jerry, who has MS and cannot walk.

“When we started traveling, I thought I had asked all the right questions, based on his needs,” she recalled. “I hadn’t. So I started keeping notes and doing research.”

Lacroix decided there had to be an easier way for the mobility-challenged consumer to travel, whether flying, staying at a hotel, renting a special-needs van, sailing on a ship or exploring ports of call.

“This is the fastest-growing segment in travel,” she said. “The baby boomers do not like being told ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and they have more money to spend on travel."

Lacroix said that choosing the right cruise line is the very best way to travel for the wheelchair user.

“However,” she warned, “some lines that say they have accessible cabins will not guarantee that the all-accessible cabin will be available, and they will not block it out for my client. I don’t use them."

Lacroix’s extensive research has paid off. She has organized shore excursions for her clients that grew out of her own research to find transportation suppliers with accessible vans, restaurants with wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and attractions with ramps.

She has organized shore excursions that include helicopter tours in Alaska, fishing trips in Grand Cayman, dolphin experiences in Cozumel and tours of various islands in the Caribbean. She is currently working to offer a zipline adventure in St. Maarten.

“I’m going to Israel early this year to meet with disability providers so I can come back with enough knowledge to put a tour together,” she said. “I love what I do, and my clients, many of whom are my close friends now, know that.”

Airlines

Some operators said that flying was the scariest part of travel for many special-needs clients, due to in-flight bathroom access and fear of having to check a wheelchair.

Yet the major airlines got pretty high marks from agents who specialize in travelers with disabilities, because accommodating such customers appears to be high on the carriers’ priority lists.

American, Delta, United and Virgin, among others, are required by the Air Carrier Access Act to schedule recurring training programs for vendors and frontline employees such as gate agents, customer service representatives and flight attendants.

In addition, Delta employees who interact with special-needs customers also are required to take the Delta Disability training program, and the line’s compliance resolution officials must take initial training followed by yearly refresher courses. The compliance resolution officers meet annually to address specific issues and to hear from members of Delta’s Advisory Board on Disability.

Similar requirements are in place at the other carriers.

For example, United’s AIR program, an acronym for Autism-Inclusive Resources, is designed to help put families at ease when traveling with an autistic child. Three half-day classes, offered at United’s hubs, cover a simulated boarding and in-flight experience.

Ashley Lyn Olson, founder of WheelchairTraveling.com, a large database and online community for accessible leisure and adventure travel, had a slightly different take on the air travel experience for those with disabilities. She has been paralyzed for 17 years as a result of an auto accident.

A horseback excursion out West with Austin Adventures.
A horseback excursion out West with Austin Adventures.

“My No. 1 fear is that the airlines will lose or damage my wheelchair,” Olson said. “This is not a piece of luggage. This is an expensive piece of lifeline equipment. Airlines should set aside a specific section in the cargo hold where wheelchairs can be secured and not have luggage piled on top.”

Olson is also calling for all airlines to designate a specific row or rows of seats in which the aisle-side armrests move up and down.

“It’s difficult to transfer from the airline wheelchair into a seat when that armrest is stationary,” she pointed out.

Tour operators

Most mainstream U.S. tour operators do not offer special tours aimed at the special-needs market, although several reported an uptick in requests among their regular clients for accessible hotel rooms as well as for assistance for clients in wheelchairs and those with hearing or vision impairments.

At Trafalgar, the number of such requests has increased “significantly” in the last two years, according to Paul Wiseman, Trafalgar’s president.

“The guided vacation experience itself is designed to make travel easy,” Wiseman said. “We will continue to support and facilitate our guests with physical impairments and will do our absolute best to facilitate their requirements.”

All of Trafalgar’s travel directors receive disability awareness training, he said.

Because Europe is not as advanced as the U.S. in terms of accommodating travelers with disabilities, Tauck said it receives few bookings from special-needs travelers, who cite cobblestone streets, a lack of ramped entryways and curb-cuts along with other factors that can make Europe a significant challenge for disabled travelers.

Friendly Planet advises potential clients with physical limitations on a case-by-case basis, according to Peggy Goldman, president.

“We don’t get many requests, but we definitely do get them,” Goldman said. “The more developed a destination, the easier it is for people who need accessibility."

Kayakers in Wyoming on one of Austin Adventures’ programs. “We never turn anyone down,” said the company's president,  Dan Austin.
Kayakers in Wyoming on one of Austin Adventures’ programs. “We never turn anyone down,” said the company's president, Dan Austin.

Goldman cited Israel as “incredibly organized for tourism. It even has a walk around the Old City that works for those with physical disabilities. This is because Israel lives and breathes tourism. Italy is another destination that is well developed and has accommodations for travelers with special needs."

All the hotels that Collette uses on its U.S. tours comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

“We work closely with each of our vendors to be sure we can accommodate the client in each hotel, restaurant, motorcoach and landmark on the tour,” said Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, Collette’s director of product.

Collette recently launched a Spotlights product line that features a stay in the same hotel throughout the tour, which makes travel a lot easier for those with disabilities.

Collette, like other tour operators, has seen an increase in special requests, especially as more travelers face the physical deterioration of aging.

“We are committed to developing relationships with vendors that will help support travel for those with disabilities, so that anyone with a passion for travel be given the opportunity to do so,” Leibl-Cote said.

Austin Adventures had a special bike built for a cyclist client who had no legs; another cyclist, this one blind, has traveled with the operator for 10 years, on tandem bike tours.

One client with severe MS did a Segway tour of Yellowstone National Park.

“We never turn anyone down,” said Austin Adventures President Dan Austin. “It’s just a matter of how flexible he or she can be. We want everyone to be able to get out of their comfort zone, push the envelope and be able to experience this country and this world.”

While the special-needs adventure market remains small, Austin said he is seeing more requests every day.

He had especially high praise for the U.S. national parks, singling out Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Crater Lake and Yosemite, in particular, for the facilities they offer travelers with disabilities.

Special-needs specialists

Another special-needs specialist is Sage Traveling, which was founded five years ago by John Sage, who has used a wheelchair since being injured in a ski accident.

He has researched 15 cruise ships down to the smallest details; made his way up countless ramps in European cities; knows the vendors with accessible vans in many Caribbean ports; and shares his information and photos with his clients during the trip-planning stages.

Travelers with Easy Access Travel.
Travelers with Easy Access Travel.

For example, he said, “Where is the access entrance at the Louvre? There are only five hotels in the center of Rome that I’m comfortable sending clients. Venice has a lot of bridges, but which ones can my clients safely use? I research details. This is my passion, to find accessible travel solutions."

The market is enormous with many opportunities, Sage said. “Each person is an individual, and we need to educate the industry on how and where those with disabilities can safely and comfortably travel, and why."

Sage books a lot of individual travel but did his first group cruise last September and is organizing three to Europe this year and one to the Caribbean in January 2016.

River cruising

Sage, along with Lacroix, Kerper and other specialists, is skeptical about the viability of river cruises for travelers with disabilities.

“It’s the stops along the way that are the problem,” Sage said. “There is a need in the industry for suppliers that can provide accessible vans with wheelchair lifts and sturdy supports.”

AmaWaterways’ twin-balcony river ships offer one room designated as fully accessible, with a wide entry and a safety bar in the bathroom.

“We recommend that our passengers travel with a companion who can assist when needed,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner. “We’ve had many disabled guests enjoy their cruises with us without issue.”

CroisiEurope’s Gerard Schmitter offers a special-needs-accessible stateroom on the middle deck, the same floor as the lounge, bar and disembarkation point.

Cruise clients with Wheelchair Escapes.
Cruise clients with Wheelchair Escapes.

“As part of our mission to make river cruising accessible to all, we do our best to match travelers with the best cruise to fit their interests and needs,” said Nicola Iannone, executive vice president for the U.S. and Canada.

He added that the line has staterooms and elevators on its larger ships for passengers with disabilities.
Avalon Waterways asks all clients with special needs to alert reservation agents at the time of booking so they can advise on the suitability of a particular cruise.

Patrick Clark, Avalon’s managing director, said, “European cities and villages on our itineraries might not have sidewalks or they will have a lot of hills and pedestrian-only access and steps, all of which can pose challenges for persons with restricted mobility.”

Avalon does receive some bookings from travelers with disabilities, but requires that those who do cruise with the company have some basic mobility, according to Clark.

Tauck cannot accommodate wheelchairs or electric scooters on its river cruises and requires that guests who need personal assistance be accompanied by a companion who can provide it.

The topic of travelers with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs, on river ships applies not only to the vessel itself but also to the docking areas and shore excursions, according to Amras Cruises.

Three of its ships — Silver II, Silver and Diamond — have elevators that serve the ship’s interior but do not reach the open sun deck.

Lisa Norton, Emerald Waterways’ vice president of brand management, North America, said that the design of the ports is a major problem in accommodating guests with mobility issues.

“The restriction on the physical size of river ships due to the locks, the docking of ships next to each other, which requires crossing other ships to get on and off, and some of the land-based impediments make it a less than ideal situation,” Norton said.

River cruising in the U.S. appears more within reach for physically challenged travelers.

American Cruise Lines’ ships have elevators to all decks, accessible restrooms in public areas and wheelchair-accessible staterooms with grab bars, raised beds, shower seats, extra-wide doorways and emergency call buttons.
Mini refrigerators are available upon request to store insulin or other medications.

Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines’ director of sales, said, “A cruise does not have to be out of the question for a traveler with special needs. Aboard small ships like ours, cruising is centered on personalization and making a cruise truly one’s own. We have dedicated, experienced crew members who are trained to assist guests with disabilities and other challenges before, during and after the cruise."

The same can be said for the American Queen Steamboat Co., which receives numerous inquiries and bookings from travelers with disabilities, according to Ted Sykes, president and COO.

“We have ADA-compliant staterooms on the American Queen and American Empress,” Sykes said. “We offer extra-large showers in many staterooms on the American Queen and larger suites and wider doorways on the American Empress."

Kneeling buses with a wheelchair lift are available on a majority of the line’s shore excursions, he said.

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