For travelers with disabilities, it is vital to plan to ensure a successful trip and safe return home, especially when it comes to international travel. While a disability can complicate certain aspects of travel, that doesn’t mean those with special needs cannot enjoy a vacation.
By practicing proper procedures and understanding the rights of disabled people, travelers of all kinds can make the most of their holiday.
Know Your Rights
The U.S. Department of Justice outlines the rights of U.S. Citizens with disabilities, including those upheld by the Air Carrier Access Act. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1973, this set of laws prohibits the discrimination of disabled travelers by both domestic and foreign air carriers. Under the ACAA is the Airplane Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, which describes the following rights:
- The Right to Be Treated with Dignity and Respect.
- The Right to Receive Information About Services and Aircraft Capabilities and Limitations.
- The Right to Receive Information in an Accessible Format.
- The Right to Accessible Airport Facilities.
- The Right to Assistance at Airports.
- The Right to Assistance on the Aircraft.
- The Right to Travel with an Assistive Device or Service Animal.
- The Right to Receive Seating Accommodations.
- The Right to Accessible Aircraft Features.
- The Right to Resolution of a Disability-Related Issue.
The Right to be Treated with Dignity and Respect
Discrimination of a disabled person by airline employees or contractors is prohibited. Such discrimination can include refusal of transportation, requirements to accept special services, and subjection to restrictions. Airline employees must also be trained to be aware of passengers’ needs and how to accommodate such needs safely and with dignity.
It is crucial to know, though, that travelers who require special accommodations may be necessary to check in early, provide advanced notice or documentation, or pre-board.
The Right to Receive Information
Upon request of the passenger, the airline must provide the following accessibility information specific to the aircraft scheduled for flight:
- Any limitations on the ability to accommodate passengers with a disability, such as limitations on level-entry boarding
- Any restrictions on the availability of storage on the aircraft for assistive devices
- The specific location of seats with movable aisle armrests
- Whether the plane has an accessible lavatory
- Services that are not available on the flight
The Right to Assistance at the Airport
In addition to assisting with enplaning and deplaning, air carriers must also assist in transportation from the curb to the departing flight, between gates during connections, and from the arrival to the curb for pick-up. Disabled travelers receiving assistance cannot be left unattended in any kind of transportation device, such as a wheelchair, for more than 30 minutes.
Air carriers are further responsible for the proper handling of transportation equipment. This includes the time checking and return of passengers’ equipment. Such equipment can be of any size or weight as long as they fit in the wheelchair storage closet of the cabin or the cargo compartment. Furthermore, if such equipment is damaged by the airline, total liability, regardless of cost, is placed on the carrier.
The Right to Assistance on the Aircraft
Travelers with disabilities should also expect assistance on board the airplane as outlined:
- Assistance in moving to and from seats, as part of the enplaning and deplaning processes
- Access to a lifting device in the case that level loading bridges are unavailable
- Assistance in preparation for eating, such as opening packages and identifying food
- Assistance in moving to or from the lavatory, including using an on-board wheelchair
- Assistance in loading and retrieving carry-on items, including mobility aids and other assistance devices stowed on board
The Right to Travel With an Assistive Device or Service Animal
Assistive devices and medical equipment must be allowed as carry-ons in the cabin. On top of that, such devices cannot count against the passenger’s carry-on limit. If an assistive device cannot fit in the cabin, the airline must provide for the checking of the device in the cargo compartment and the timely arrival of the device upon arrival.
Service dogs as travel companions must be allowed unless one of the following criteria is determined:
- The dog poses a threat to the health and safety of others.
- The dog creates a significant disruption in the cabin or at the gate.
- The dog’s carriage would violate U.S. or foreign law.
- Appropriate DOT forms were not provided as required by the airline.
Seek the Proper Resources
When traveling with a disability, it is vital to research the accessibility of the destination and understand the resources available to disabled travelers. Organizations such as SATH, the U.S. Department of State, and specialty travel agencies can provide valuable information to those traveling with a disability.
Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH)
The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH) is a non-profit organization that advocates and creates resources and opportunities for disabled travelers. Among their resources includes tips for travelers of all disabilities, a compilation of rights that disabled travelers should know, and lists of accessible activities in many cities. Some of their most valuable articles include:
- How to travel with a speech impairment
- How to travel with a sight impairment or blindness
- How to travel with a hearing impairment or deafness
- Autism and airport travel safety tips
- How to travel with an older adult
- Avis Rent A Car Launches “Avis Access” for Travelers with Disabilities
- Toll-Free Hotline for Air Travelers with Disabilities
SATH also provides several location-specific resources for accessible activities and accommodations. For example, those traveling to Spain may be interested in this article on the accessibility of Barcelona’s public transport and other tips regarding travel to Barcelona.
The U.S. Department of State
The U.S. Department of State is among the most valuable resources available to disabled travelers. Travel insurance is an important consideration for all travelers because many insurance providers, including Medicare, do not cover overseas travel. On top of that, some travel insurance plans only include financial losses. It is vital to choose a plan that provides for medical care.
The Department of State offers information on travel insurance. Medical evacuation plans, or medevac, are recommended for travelers with disabilities.
A further resource the Department of State provides is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This free service allows travelers to enroll in their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their destination country. Benefits include:
- Information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country
- The ability of the Embassy to contact travelers in such emergencies as a natural disaster or civil unrest
- Easier access for family and friends to get in touch with travelers in an emergency
Specialty Travel Agencies
When traveling abroad, it can be difficult for disabled travelers to find activities and accommodations suited for their needs. While many international destinations are suitable for special needs, creating an itinerary can be difficult. A knowledgeable travel agent or agency can help travelers find accommodations in these situations.
Such travel agencies that can help disabled people find accessible accommodations and activities include: