Plan a Successful Accessible Family Vacation

Parents share planning tips for family vacations that include a special needs child.


In 2005, Susan Lewin, from Huntsville, Ala., and her family, including son Christian who has cerebral palsy, spent the day at the beach in North Carolina. “Christian wasn’t drinking enough,” she remembers, and after a full day he suffered a seizure. The family called 911 and an ambulance rushed Christian to a local hospital. The experience changed how Lewin plans her trips. Now, she says, “we always make sure we know where the hospitals are, and what doctors are in the area.”

When you’re raising a child with a disability, often, predicting the day-to-day is a challenge; taking the family on the road can seem daunting. But, as parents will tell you, it’s all about planning.

“When you’re planning a trip and traveling with a child, one part of your job is to plan for success,” says Sarah Mulligan, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood. That means envisioning trouble spots and challenges. “It’s not a guaranteed delightful trip,” says Mulligan, “but you can envision the things that might not go smoothly, think about what could happen, and plan for those events.”

When traveling with a special needs child, there’s even more to remember: foods to prepare and pack, medicines and doctors’ notes to neatly compile for airport inspections and routines to work into a vacation schedule. Before you head out on your next vacation, here’s how other parents have tackled common travel concerns.

Inaccessibility and Mobility: Getting Around, or Not

When you’re booking a hotel, ask to talk with the marketing or sales department, and explain exactly what your family needs, suggests Lisa Schwab, who travels with 17-year-old son Patrick who has cerebral palsy. When Schwab calls, she asks about the room’s layout to make sure there’s enough space for her son to navigate his wheelchair. What makes most rooms “handicapped accessible” is the bathroom, but, says Schwab, most parents of kids with disabilities won’t need an accessible bathroom—the room layout will be more important. Figure out just how much space your child needs and then call the hotel before you book.

If you arrive and find that absolutely nothing is accessible, or that you got bad information—contact the Department of Justice to complain. (To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit For information about filing a complaint, see the Department of Justice Web site.)

Some mobility issues can be alleviated by planning ahead. When Lewin and her family headed to Disney World in 2007, she insisted on taking a wheelchair even though Christian is a good walker. “I thought, ‘he can’t walk the whole time,’” she remembers, and by the end of their Magic Kingdom experience, the wheelchair proved to be a godsend. Assess what your family will be doing and plan accordingly, even if your child doesn’t need something on a typical day, they might want it when traveling catches up with them.

An Opportunity for Education

When Carol Tabas was sitting by the hotel pool in Fort Lauderdale with her son, Chet, who uses a wheelchair and often drools because of his disability, two little girls were watching. The girls stared at Chet and every time he would do something, Tabas remembers, they’d scream and run away. Eventually, Tabas knew she had to intervene. First, she caught the girls’ attention and started talking to them. She asked them if they were sisters (they weren’t), and where they were from. Then, she introduced them to her son and explained that he can’t do everything they can, but he likes it when people talk to him and he likes to laugh.

The ice broken, the girls peppered her with questions: “Why does he drool? Can he talk? Why is he in a wheelchair?” Tabas answered all their questions and by the end, the girls were friendly and often stopped by to say “Hi” to Chet when they saw him at the pool. Addressing problems head on, and in a friendly manner can address natural curiosity and even make you friends in the process.

The Inevitable Meltdown

The key to avoiding a meltdown is keeping as close to your child’s routine as possible. Even if it puts a damper on family fun, Tabas makes sure that Chet has a nap each day, and that he gets dinner and to bed on time, or as close as possible. In the morning, she travels with packets of instant oatmeal so she can give Chet his medication first thing, without having to get him presentable to eat breakfast outside of their room.

But, sometimes, it’s best just to grin and bear it. Mary Stoneroad’s son D.J. is autistic and loves the Hersheypark amusement park in Hershey, Penn. The worst part about their visits is leaving. When D.J. was little, Stoneroad brought a red wagon and could quickly wheel D.J. out of the park. But, now that he’s bigger, at age 7, she’s had to get creative. Sometimes Stoneroad finds that the usual methods—showing D.J. pictures of home—don’t work. That’s when, “we do the army move,” she says. “We usually have one person stand on either side, and cup our hands on his elbows to get him walking until we’re out.” That creates a bit of a scene, but Stoneroad isn’t concerned with what other people think. People have usually figured out that there’s something different about D.J., and are accommodating. “We haven’t had anybody say anything nasty to us,” she says.

Dining Out

Restaurants present a handful of challenges, mazes of tables and chairs, and potentially embarrassing public displays. And then, there’s the food. The only concern for Lewin when she travels with Christian, 8, who’s a slow and unsteady walker, is helping him navigate through those unfamiliar and tightly spaced tables and chairs. She walks beside Christian, and “I make myself as wide as I can,” she says, without being too obvious. “I don’t want people to notice the disability, but I want people to give him a little extra room.”

Tabas makes sure to get a table in the corner when she takes Chet to restaurants. Feeding him can get messy, so a corner table doesn’t disturb other diners and gives Tabas enough room. When Schwab travels, she brings a food processer to purée foods for her son. And, while on the road, they stop at restaurants they know will have foods Patrick can eat: spaghetti or mac and cheese. “We make a lot of concessions on where we eat when we’re on the road,” she says. “But, I don’t want to take the opportunity away from him to eat with his family.”  

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat, Sightseeing, Sleep

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