Easing Into Special Needs Travel

Parents and experts weigh in on traveling with kids with disabilities.


When Lisa Schwab opened the door to the condo she’d rented for her family’s vacation in Myrtle Beach, she knew it wouldn’t work. The bed was positioned in the wrong way, and her son, Patrick, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, wouldn’t be able to get through the door and into the living area beyond. “I had the idea that if I moved the bed sideways, he could get through the door,” she remembers. Schwab sat on the floor, put her feet against the closet wall, her back against the bed, and pushed. Instead of moving the bed, she put her foot through the wall and added repair costs to her vacation tab. Since then, when she books vacations, she talks to the hotel marketing department to figure out which room will really work for her family.

You never know what you’ll get when traveling with kids with disabilities. Whether it’s a hotel room floor plan that won’t work, or a museum that’s overstimulating enough to send your child into a tailspin during the off-season’s quietest day. Still, bringing disabled kids along on family vacations does them a world of good (regardless of the scene you think you’re causing).

Travel Opens Up Their World, and Yours

It’s critical for special needs kids to understand their world, says Gwen Botting, president of Michigan Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, and the experiences they get through travel (problem solving when the car breaks down, deciding where to eat for dinner, navigating unfamiliar territory) are the ones that teach them how to navigate life. Traveling also connects these kids to the world. Being engaged or connected, as Sarah Mulligan, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood points out, “implies that the child is not just present, but getting meaning from and interacting with the world.” What better way to connect than by feeling the sand between your toes and hearing the roar of the ocean, or shaking hands with characters you’d only read about at a theme park?

There’s something in this for you too. Seeing your child in different environments will clue you in on what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, and may give you insight into interests you never knew existed. Finally, getting out is vital to connect kids with the community, and vice versa. “It’s very important for the community at large to see children with disabilities in all types of settings,” says Mulligan. “We need to make sure our kids aren’t sheltered away.”

So, before you embark on your next trip, take some advice from parents who have been there, done that, and lived to tell about it.

Get Out There! Traveling is Good for You

Nick Starita, executive director of the United Cerebral Palsy, New Jersey chapter, traveled with his son, Jimmy, who had muscular dystrophy from the time he was a toddler through age 25, when Jimmy passed away. The trips were good for father and son. They were something for Jimmy to look forward to, and something that his dad could give him. Traveling added valuable quality of life when Starita knew that they had a limited amount of time together. 

Carol Lawrence has traveled with her son David, who has Down syndrome, for all of his 41 years. Together, they’ve visited Disney World, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. “I feel that I’m giving him experience,” says Lawrence, “taking him places that he can enjoy keeps him in the mainstream of life as much as possible.” It also teaches David to go with the flow and learn social skills in a variety of situations, like navigating language barriers and the dessert selection at a buffet while traveling overseas. 

Above all, regardless of disability, your child is still getting the same thing out of traveling as any other kid—“time with family that they don’t appreciate,” says Schwab. And know that, as a parent, you may be knotted with worry even as they’re kicking back. Starita remembers his wife’s constant concern during their hotel room stays. “She would worry if Jimmy could breathe in the altitude [when traveling in the mountains],” he remembers, “or she’d stay up and worry about [his] ventilator tube.” Still, Starita packed two of everything that they needed for the trip, and they were off.

Go Now: Opportunities Await

“Travel is much more accessible today than in years past,” says Vicki Thorp of Accessible Travel, in Denver, Colo. The Americans with Disabilities Act and subsequent lawsuits helped force better accessibility across the country. When author and blogger Candy Harrington started covering travel 15 years ago, access was an afterthought. But, says Harrington, “today, access is commonplace and more and more people are getting out.” She notes vast improvements in accessible airport transportation and public transportation across the country. Thorp still sees areas for improvement, like accessible travel pricing, employee training and making sure that every city has accessible taxis, but overall, the situation is much improved, she says.

It can even be advantageous to travel with a child in a wheelchair. Starita found that traveling with Jimmy often got them bumped up to first class on flights. And, at Disney World, Schwab discovered an advantage above all others: they skipped to the front of the line at all the rides.

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Nice addition I like this feature; its a good way to round out your focus on family travel that includes families of all shapes. Maybe another focusr could be single-parent travel?

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