Capital Access: Touring D.C. with Special Needs Kids
Use this guide to plan your Washington, D.C., family trip with your special needs child.
Famous for cherry blossoms, white stone memorials and free kid-friendly museums, Washington, D.C., is also an accessible city. “D.C. is a very accessible city,” says Russ Holt, executive director of Access Information, Inc., the group responsible for the D.C. Access Guide, but it’s not perfect. The Metro and many museums are accessible, however some restaurants and older historic buildings still present a challenge. Plan ahead though, says Holt, who uses a wheelchair, and you can have a great time in the nation’s capital.
Getting Around the Capital via Metro, Cab or Tourmobile
Walking around Washington is easy, whether along the smooth, paved paths around the monuments and the National Mall, the narrow, winding, brick-paved streets in Georgetown, or anything in between. Public transportation is also wheelchair- and stroller-accessible. Buses have lifts, wide wheelchair-friendly elevators are available from street to train level, punctuated tiles are installed near the track edges for the visually impaired and floor lights flash to alert hearing impaired travelers of oncoming trains. Use the D.C. Metro trip planner to map out your travels.
To get around by cab, the National Council on Independent Living (www.ncil.org) recommends Battle’s Transportation (tel. 202-462-8650) or Red Top Cab (tel. 202-328-3333) for wheelchair- and stroller-accessible vans. Of course, when you’re on vacation, you want transportation that will take you around to all the major tourist spots. That’s where you’ll want to catch a blue-and-white shuttle from Tourmobile Sightseeing, which stops at all the major monuments and attractions—the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial and more. The company offers two services for travelers with physical disabilities: For those who can transfer and climb one or two steps (or if you can carry your child up a short flight of stairs), use the on-demand service on buses with wheelchair storage. If your child requires a chair lift, request a lift-equipped vehicle at a ticket booth. Make sure to set a pick-up time with the driver when you reach your destination.
Museums, Memorials and More
The best thing about traveling D.C. with kids: free museums. All of the Smithsonian museums are free, which means that if your little one has a meltdown in the mammals exhibit of the National Museum of Natural History you can leave without worrying about a huge admission fee gone to waste on a 20-minute visit. Smithsonian museums are wheelchair-accessible and provide options for visitors with disabilities. “All of our buildings and the National Zoo are accessible to people with disabilities,” says Beth Ziebarth, director of accessibility for the Smithsonian, who uses a wheelchair. In addition to wheelchair accessibility, the Smithsonian provides exhibits with tactile experiences, live captioning, hands-on programs like the Bug Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History, interpreters for programs and docent-led tours for visitors with visual or hearing disabilities (call two weeks ahead to schedule an interpreter).
One thing to be aware of: Smithsonian museums are often filled with school groups during the school year, hordes of 8th graders on spring break in March and April, or throngs of families during the summer. Ziebarth recommends visiting either at the beginning or end of the day to avoid these crowds. Though there are accessible parking spaces on the Mall, the best way to get to the museums is by Metro. (Learn more about Smithsonian accessibility, and get a Smithsonian Access guide by calling 202-357-2700.)
A must-see off the Mall, the National Zoo has wide paths that makes it easy to see all the animal residents. The zoo is on a hill, however, so some of the steeper inclines may be difficult for some visitors. Three attractions that are newly accessible thanks to additions and renovations: the National Archives, the basement of Ford’s Theatre (accessible by a stair glide that takes wheelchairs down the winding staircase “like a roller coaster,” says Holt) and the new Nationals Stadium.
While most D.C. museums are accessible, many are more hands-off than ‘please-touch’. So stop in the gift shop, especially if you have a child with a visual impairment. “For a child who’s tactile,” says Gwen Botting, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, “the gift shop produces enough things that give your child a sense of what’s going on there.” You may not be able to get close enough to the Washington Monument to touch it, but you can get a feel for it by sifting through the various Washington Monument statutes at the gift shop.
And that brings us to memorials. All the memorials are accessible, from Lincoln to Vietnam to World War II. The White House is accessible, but to see the Capitol, call your senator or representative to arrange an accessible tour, whether you need a sign language interpreter or a wheelchair-accessible route. Call the Congressional Special Services Office at 202-224-4048 or visit the Congress’ accessibility Web page.
For kids’ entertainment, check out the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater. It offers a much-welcome respite from the busy, sunny Mall. (Note: for children who are easily overwhelmed, this small, dark theater may be a challenge). The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is fully accessible and worth a visit even if you don’t see a show. Be sure to take the elevator to the top floor to see the view from the balcony. (Read our D.C. theater for kids article for more information about shows.)
Hotel and Restaurant Tips
When booking a hotel room, make sure that the location is accessible to Metro or other transportation and close to most of the sights you want to see. For dinner, there are restaurants in D.C. that are both accessible and family-friendly. Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U Street NW) is right across from the U Street Metro and serves fresh, homemade, secret-recipe chili in a relaxed atmosphere. Jaleo (480 7th St NW) is a Spanish tapas restaurant that serves as many little plates as you and your kids can handle. America (50 Massachusetts Avenue) in Union Station offers regional American cuisine. For more restaurants, hotels, and accessible visiting tips for D.C., order a disability guide from www.disabilityguide.org.