Traveling When Disabled—You Can Do It

Written by admin on May 9, 2009 – 12:06 pm -

It doesn’t matter how fast you walk or even if you can’t walk at all, you can still travel.  But before you decide where you want to go, take stock, think it over, and make a plan—and then plan some more. 

Before booking your trip, sit down with your doctor and discuss what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Find out if you’ll need extra inoculations or to take supplemental pills.  Make copies of your prescriptions and ask for a summary of your medical records. In addition, your doctor can contribute valuable advice as to where you should and shouldn’t go. Depending on your disability, there are some countries where you’ll do better than others, especially should you encounter problems.  In spite of its architecture, France is a doable destination.

Depending on your limitations, some doctors may advise you to have an emergency medical contact at your destination. More than likely, they’ll have a professional colleague to recommend. 

France, albeit not easy, is becoming increasingly disability conscious.  People are living longer, and the French maintain do-or-die pride and don’t like being dependent on others.  Yes, there are impediments that come from being a city that was constructed during the Roman times. But the French government is doing its best to mitigate them—and the Michelin guides note hotels and restaurants that are handicap friendly.

It’s hard (or perhaps impossible) to retrofit some ancient buildings. But Paris is trying to do so when push comes to shove. Tourists who are disabled might need to stay in a newly renovated hotel or one that conforms to U.S. standards such as a Hilton or a larger place that doesn’t have tiny elevators and doorways. They may not be the most charming boutique hotels—but hey, people come to Paris to see the Louvre and eat at wonderful restaurants, not spend hours in the lobby.

Some people opt to use travel agents whose specialty is planning trips for people with disabilities. They know which places are more appropriate than others and have the contacts.  Their service can be very useful. 

If you’re making your own plans, make advanced preparations and think out every possible contingency. Leave as little as possible to chance.

You aren’t going to want to book a biking or hiking trip or any trip that’s physically taxing.  But there are so many other places to go and things to do. Don’t be passive as you plan the itinerary and its various stops.

If you’re flying, inform the airline if you’ll need a wheelchair when departing and upon arrival. Some people don’t think they need this service, but airline terminals and their connecting ramps feel as if they are expanding every year.  Don’t let a false sense of pride cause you to board the plane tired and frazzled.  

And there’s a plus. You’ll be ferried through security and, if you’re traveling internationally, you won’t have to wait forever to clear customs because the escort will take you to the front of the line. One time when I was accompanying a friend, who had a broken leg and realized the bonus of being expedited through the security process, I considered faking an infirmity the next time I was traveling alone. How I hate waiting in lines. But then, who doesn’t?  But pulling out that stop falsely is a definte no-no as it’s depriving others from necessary and limited help at the airport.

Even though it’s an extra expense, you’ll probably feel it’s worth it to have a private taxi or shuttle meet you upon arrival outside of the customs area. The driver should take charge of you and your luggage and it’s one less hassle with which to contend. If you’re tired from the flight, having to deal with luggage (not to mention finding the correct exit door) to the taxi area is something you’ll be pleased to forego. This is especially true if you’re landing at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport that’s confusing for people who come and go because of the on-going construction.

When traveling by train, always reserve a porter. For the few extra dollars (and do tip), he can make your life easier by escorting you to your seat and doing battle with your luggage. Do not expect to necessarily find roving porters in the station. In many European cities (and elsewhere to be sure) they must be reserved in advance.  

When making hotel reservations, specify you need a room that’s easily accessible from the main floor and if there are stairs, there’s an alternative way of getting from here to there.  Not every facility has elevators (or big enough ones to accommodate a wheelchair) and it’s up to the traveler to do the homework. Many older properties don’t have ramps or places without stairs. In Paris, many breakfast rooms may be in the cave (basement) that’s accessible only by steps.  Better to know before you arrive than find yourself trapped. It’s no sin to decide to stay at a different hotel because of its layout.

Restaurants may or may not present a challenge.  In France, it’s amazing how many of them have restroom facilities located on another floor. As they’re renovated, restaurants are required in many places to install WC’s on the main floor… but it’s prudent to check before sitting down to eat.

It’s also illegal for taxis not to stop for a passenger who is using a wheelchair. Don’t expect to hail a taxi. You’ll need to go to a taxi stand or call for one to come to you. But keep in mind that the driver is responsible for folding up the wheelchair and may not charge a supplement to transport it in the cab’s trunk. 

Paris has buses with ramps that can be lowered. They many not be on every route, but are being added as vehicles are being replaced. Some metros have elevators but it’s iffy and would be my last choice as how to travel. The cars are often crowded and there are too many potential pitfalls.

Pack what you need such as special pillows, bandages and anything that will make you more comfortable during your trip. You may need to check an extra suitcase, but the additional cost is comparatively little compared to needing to find something specific in a foreign place—even if it’s only a two-hour flight away from where you live.  Don’t expect drug stores to have what you need or necessarily even be open.  Parisian drugstores do not look very much like your neighborhood CVS or Rite-Aid.

Travel insurance is generally a good investment, especially if you have any type of disability. Better to spend the extra money and be able to be repatriated to the medical facility of your choice. You’ll travel with increased peace of mind as will the family that you’ve left behind.


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