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March 11, 2008

Have wheels, will travel

Not to mention service dogs, white canes, hearing aids, oxygen, walkers, crutches and attendants.

Americans don't have a lot of vacation choices anymore. Their dollar is in the toilet, they're reeling from record (for them) gas prices, the economy is a shambles. A vacation in the Maritimes might be the only affordable alternative. But it's business as usual down at the Ministry of Tourism, where primitive access standards are the order of the day. Chalk up another loss for Nova Scotia.

-Gus Reed

With agencies, resorts and cities eagerly catering to the growing number of travellers with disabilities, the countless obstacles faced by someone in a wheelchair are starting to fall

ALLISON DUNFIELD Special to The Globe and Mail

April 23, 2008

After a car accident put Daryl Rock in a wheelchair in 1983, the Vancouver native became determined to put his life back together - and that meant continuing to follow his dream of seeing the world.

"I considered it a part of my rehab," he says.

Fast-forward 25 years, and his Facebook world map has 31 countries and 190 cities checked off - he has been to every continent but Antarctica and Africa.

And he's certainly not alone on the road. While people with disabilities say they face definite challenges to touring the world, with a bit of planning and because of improving accessibility, it is becoming easier and increasingly common.

A 2002 study by the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization found the travel market for Americans with disabilities to be worth about $13.6-billion (U.S.) - and that it could double if accessibility were improved. In a 2005 study, the organization found that the number of leisure trips in the United States was up 50 per cent over 2002.

Quebec's Kéroul, a non-profit organization dedicated to accessible tourism, says people with disabilities are just as likely to travel as the rest of the population, with more than half of the 4.2 million in Canada taking at least one overnight trip a year.

"It's a normal thing to do for everybody. People with disabilities are the same as everybody else in the sense that it is important for them to experience what this life and this world have to offer, and travel is a big part of that," says Ray Cohen, publisher and editor-in-chief of Abilities Magazine.

But although the "world is in transition," he says, the visually impaired or physically disabled are still encountering problems everywhere from buses to train station washrooms to airplanes. "These are issues that people with disabilities cannot take for granted because it means the difference of being able to go someplace or not."

It certainly hasn't been easy for Rock, who has encountered unsympathetic hoteliers, lost wheelchairs, long waits to disembark from planes and blown tires on the road.

He recalls one trip when he arrived late at his hotel, checked in and went up to his room - only to realize he could not get through the doorway of the washroom. He went back down to the front desk and told the staff the room was not wheelchair-accessible as advertised. They told him that they had had disabled people stay there in the past, "so it's obviously your problem."

"By this time it was midnight. I ended up having to find another hotel," he says.

For most travellers, booking flights, rushing to the airport and getting on a plane with your luggage can be trying, but "if you have a disability, just multiply everything by four or five," says Sandra Carpenter, the acting executive director of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto. She uses a wheelchair to get around and travels to conferences as part of her job.

Air travel poses one of the biggest hurdles, especially for those who are dependent on a medical assistant for mobility, eating and going to the washroom, or those who are too obese to fit into a standard seat; such passengers must book a second seat - though Air Canada may offer a discounted fare during some flights.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities argues that having to pay for an extra seat is unfair because it makes travelling by plane prohibitive, with trains, ferries and interprovincial buses already required to allow attendants to travel free.

In 2002, the council launched a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency. "I would love to be able to travel on my own. But [because I have attendants] ... I'm the one that has to bear the cost," says Joanne Neubaur, one of the principal complainants in the case.

Three months ago, the agency ruled that Canada's three major carriers - Air Canada, WestJet and Air Canada Jazz - must provide an additional seat at no cost to people with severe disabilities who require an attendant to help them during a flight and to clinically obese passengers.

But a month later, both Air Canada and WestJet filed for leave to appeal the decision. Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of culture and communication, says his airline "believes there were errors in law in the decision. It was for those reasons that we launched this."

The Federal Court of Appeal has yet to decide if it will grant the leave to appeal, and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities fears the case will drag on.

"Of course I was very disappointed. I thought it just made sense that they provide this accommodation," says Neubauer, who lives in Victoria and requires attendants because of her rheumatoid arthritis.


The key to planning a trip with a minimum of snags - and there will always be snags, the well-travelled Rock notes - is to know and communicate your needs and rights.

Experts in the field of accessible travel generally agree that doing all your booking online - especially for a complex trip requiring multiple stops or accommodations - is next to impossible if you have special needs because it may not be possible to make specific requests; it's best to phone the airline or hotel to outline exactly what you are expecting.

Brian Simms, a travel agent with Toronto's Access Holidays, which specializes in accessible travel, says it's important for people to consider all the equipment and medical supplies they will use, as well as their requirements on the plane and in a hotel. For example, a passenger needs to figure out whether they will need to be transported from the gate to their seat via an onboard wheelchair. Will there be room to store crutches? How will they get from the check-in counter to the gate?

Rock says it's also critical to pack necessary medical supplies in a carry-on bag.

And many travellers recommend bringing tools and a manual, as wheelchairs are loaded in the cargo bay and can arrive dismantled or damaged.

Simms says it's also important to have a Plan B in case of a flight delay. "An able-bodied person can say, 'Oh, I'll get on the next flight.' A special needs person can't do that." His company will find an accessible hotel for each leg of the journey - just in case.

In many situations, it's simply a matter of knowing your rights. For example, under the Canada Transportation Act, people in wheelchairs or with other accessibility issues can request that their seat be the most accessible one on the plane - i.e., on the aisle, with a movable armrest - when they book, at no additional cost.

Rock notes that airlines are also required to pre-board passengers with disabilities. But often airlines try to help him to his seat last, he says, adding that it's both "irritating" and embarrassing to be lifted into his seat in front of everyone.

During a flight, crews will help to open a meal tray or transport a passenger to the washroom with an aisle-sized onboard wheelchair, but they are not required to assist a person inside the washroom, so solo passengers are advised to consider using a catheter.

Once you've arrived, it's important to have booked a room that will meet all your requirements.

"First off, when you make a reservation, don't just ask for an 'accessible room,' as they all have different features," says Candy Harrington, editor of Emerging Horizons, a U.S.-based magazine on accessible travel. "If you need a specific access feature, such as a roll-in shower, you have to ask for that. All accessible rooms do not have roll-in showers - some have tubs with grab bars. So terminology is important - describe the features you need."

As well, many hotels - even the larger chains - may not have more than two or three accessible rooms, so booking well in advance is essential.

Rock says he usually finds chain properties such as Hiltons or Sheratons to be the best bet for the first night; once he finds his bearings, he usually searches for a smaller, cheaper option.

People should also carefully consider the type of vacation and location.

"I always start with a cruise," travel agent Simms says, if the person hasn't ventured out much. For one thing, a passenger in a wheelchair can spend a week aboard without much worry because most cruise ships are very well equipped.

Other popular choices are Las Vegas, San Diego, Disney resorts and most major cities in the United States. Travellers such as Rock and Adam Lloyd, who runs the website Gimp on the Go, an online repository of accessible destinations, say it's because the Americans with Disabilities Act has substantially improved accessibility in all corners of that country.

"Most U.S. vacation spots do very well," Lloyd says. Worldwide, he adds, travellers consistently rave about Britain, Australia, Germany, France and some parts of Latin America.

Sadly, Vancouver is the only Canadian city commonly mentioned in terms of accessibility. Pat Danforth of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities says that while Canada was ahead of most countries in that respect in the 1980s, since the U.S. disabilities act came into effect in 1990, this country has fallen far behind because we don't have similar across-the-board regulations.

By doing some online research, however, vacationers can get a good sense of what they will encounter. Websites such as Gimp on the Go have an up-to-date list of accessible hotels, tourist spots and restaurants.

Obviously, the trip should suit the individual, not the wheelchair, Harrington says. "There's a whole world beyond theme parks, and just because you are disabled doesn't mean you are automatically going to like theme parks. If you didn't like them pre-disability, you're not magically going to think they're real cool when you suddenly use a wheelchair."


Toronto's Walt Balenovich, a wheelchair maverick who has written a book about his journeys, Travels in a Blue Chair, excels in choosing adventures far from the tourist traps.

He never books his hotels in advance and is always able to find someone to help him get around. He doesn't even worry about finding an accessible shower - there's always soap, water and a washcloth, he says.

"I travel alone so I have to rely on people to help me," he says. "Who wouldn't help somebody in a wheelchair? It takes five minutes out of your day and you come away from it feeling good."

He says that because he's "looking to rough it," he enjoys staying in hostels, where he meets interesting people and often has a more unique experience.

Even a medical emergency abroad did little to deter him. "I had a bad experience in Zambia where I fell out of the wheelchair and broke my leg." A doctor with a "blurry X-ray machine" slapped a cast on him, and Balenovich continued on his way.

He's proof that experiences are limitless for the traveller with a little chutzpah. He has soaked in the spray of Iguazu Falls in Argentina, visited rice paddies in Indonesia and floated on a catamaran over the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

"I just find a destination. I don't worry about whether the wheelchair is going to be a problem or not. The world is not built with a ramp."


Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality

Council of Canadians with Disabilities

Open Doors Organization

Access-Able Travel Source

Access Holidays

Centre for Independent Living in Toronto

Emerging Horizons

Gimp on the Go

Canadian Transportation Agency


Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to research your vacation - some experts recommend spending up to a year if the trip is out of the country, such as a cruise or a safari.

Identify yourself to the airline and/or travel agency as someone with a disability. Under Canadian Transportation Agency guidelines, you are not required to go into detail - simply describe what you need.

Be sure to keep all your medical documentation, wheelchair instructions and medications with you in case of an emergency.

Confirm and reconfirm all your flights, transportation to and from the hotel and any reservations as far in advance as possible, again stating your needs.

Travel during off-hours or off-days to allow more time for yourself and for airline and hotel staff to help you out; ideally, book your flight early in the day in case of delays.

Determine what sort of flight you will need. Planes that carry more than 30 passengers in Canada are required to have an on-board wheelchair that you can use to get to and from the washroom; however, you will not get help in the washroom, so make sure you will be able to manage.

Request the most accessible seat possible - i.e., an aisle seat with an armrest that folds up, preferably close to the washroom.

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