Into every disabled businessperson's career some travel must fall. Make the experience less stressful with these travel tips geared to people with visual impairments.
Travel Advice From a Pro
Other Tips and Tricks From Travelers With Disabilities
These Are the Rules
Business travel can be tense enough without the added hassle of being blind or visually impaired. I talked to some experienced visually impaired business travelers to see what they do to make the process more pleasant so they can concentrate on doing business.
Being prepared for your business trip that will lessen or eliminate headaches which commonly plague travelers but which are even greater hassles for people with disabilities. Here are a few tips for being prepared that I found specifically for blind or visually impaired travelers:
- Write down the names and addresses of all destinations, such as hotels, meeting places, and even airports. Don't assume taxi drivers and others will know where they are, and don't rely on your own memory. Bring the information in a form accessible to you. Include phone numbers you may need to get help at your destination, including hotels, ground transportation, business contacts, and tourist bureaus.
- Make it known to everyone you deal with (starting with your travel agency) what your disability is. Don't assume people will figure it out themselves. Tell them directly and specifically what help you need. If you keep it to yourself out of reticence or pride, you may discover that something you really need will be missed or that you will be overlooked, for instance, in an emergency. Believe me, it's not worth it.
- Don't hesitate to ask people for information or help. If you cannot see the departures monitor, just cheerfully ask someone standing near it if they can help you out. In my experience, most people are more than happy to help, especially if you are specific about what you need. Be courteous and grateful. It's called "positive reinforcement."
- Carry your white cane whether you are going to use it or not. At the very least, it will validate your requests for help, and you may run into situations, such as dark stairways, where you will need it. Bring an extra folding white cane in your luggage in case something happens to your regular cane or your guide dog.
- Keep valuables and important documents on your person: keys, money, tickets, identification etc. You can get a small zippered pouch that you wear around your neck under your clothes where you can carry these items securely, but make sure you can get to them when you need to -- such as when going through security.
- Have small bills in your pocket for tips. Chances are you will be asking for more help than the average person. It is only right to show you appreciate rather than demand it.
- Find out ahead of time whether you can bring your guide dog. (See this article's Traveling Abroad section.) Don't assume just because you are traveling within your country that you will be able to bring it along. Hawaii., for example, limits the circumstances under which you can enter the state with a service animal.
- Find out if your health insurance will cover you when you travel, especially to other countries. And bring your medications with you in their labeled bottles so they can be identified as prescription drugs if you are searched.
- Do your research. One handy tool for getting information about airports is International Airport Guide. For a review of what airport travel involves post 9/11, see Remaking the Airport.
- Research hotels. A hotel is a hotel, right? No! If you have concerns about sharing of a bathroom, availability of toiletries, locations of transportation or availability of meals, find out about all of these services before you make your reservation. At a hotel I stayed in Paris the "toilet" in the room was not a toilet but a bidet -- the toilet was down the hall. And every morning there was a tray with coffee and a baguette on the floor in front of the door. I'm glad I did not find out about this by tripping over it!
- Search disability travel sites. While the dozen or so sites dedicated to accessible travel emphasize wheelchair users, it is wise to read every one you find. Use the words "accessible travel" in a search engine because there is plenty of helpful advice that is applicable to all disabilities.
- Read general travel advice meant for the average traveler. What you learn may be even more important to you -- such as not assuming you will find a room with a vacancy when you arrive like my friend Ellen and I did when we spent a night in Juneau, Alaska, one August. One great resource on the Web is Rick Steve's Travel Tips, which has advice about packing, safety, communicating, using money, staying healthy and other potentially risky aspects of traveling.
- Read about your destination ahead of time. I can't tell you how many times I've come back from a business trip where I had extra time only to find out that something I would have loved to see or visit was down the block from my hotel!
Each aircraft, for instance, has emergency exits, some of which are right by passenger seats. People with disabilities are not allowed to sit in those seats because the person in them is responsible for the lives of every other individual on that flight. When you make your seat selection, be sure to tell the ticket agent you have a disability to prevent being given an emergency-exit row seat and then having to later haggle over who has to trade with you.
The Disabled Traveler suggests you choose an airline based on its record of accommodating disabled travelers.
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Travel Advice From a Pro
Mika Pyyhkala, who travels more than 50,000 miles a year for business and pleasure, gave me several tips. In fact, they are so helpful that I'm giving Pyyhkala a whole section in this article! Here is advice from a pro:
- Join and get to know airline/hotel frequent travel programs. If possible, try to become an elite/prefered/premier member. You receive many published and unpublished benefits once reaching these levels.
- Get to know (at least by first name and face) people who work at the airports and hotels you frequent. These people can really make or break your travel. I just completed a trip where I ran into a ticket agent who just recognized my face, and she waived a $100 change fee for me, even in the era of supposedly no waivers and no favors.
- Keep a person's direct telephone number when you have a complaint or problem -- when you want to issue a compliment. These key people can help you. Last summer, I had to change a trip. I called a friend of mine who I have dealt with over the years at Boston Logan, and she said, "Usually there is a charge for this, but I will waive it for you since I know you have had problems in the past." Also, this past summer, I needed a two-bedroom suite at a major hotel but wanted to pay just the standard room charge. I got a contact name from someone I had worked with, and presto, I got the two-bedroom executive suite for the price of an economy room.
- Use the internet as a resource. An excellent web site is FlyerTalk.com, which has forums or chat areas about all major airline and hotel companies. There are countless tips and useful undocumented sources of advice. For example, on FlyerTalk.com, I learned of a deal where I could fly the BA Concorde for $1,200 round-trip (usual price is $10k -- give or take a few k).
- Try to get bumped from over-sold flights in order to get free tickets, upgrades, and other benefits.
- Ask the venue for a tour of the facilities at a convention center. I recently did this at the Orlando Convention Center, and it worked out very well.
- Get a laptop with an ethernet connection, and an 802.11 (wifi) wireless connection, so you can stay connected wherever you might be. Look at an ISP called i2roam.com for dial up and other connections around the globe.
- Learn to get around by yourself at the airports you use most frequently. It is easier than you think. This way, you do not have to wait for or be dependent on others for connecting flights etc.
- Rethink your need for special assistance. I prefer not to request special assistance from the airlines. I find that this type of service gets in my way more than it helps.
- Trade favors. If you frequent a particular hotel, ask for guest service information in braille. Offer to publicize this fact for the hotel and help the facility find a vendor to do the work.
- Be careful when checking into hotels because many front desk agents think a person who is blind needs either a room near elevator or one equipped for people in wheelchairs.
- File a complaint if you encounter disability-related issues. You would be surprised at the compensation you might receive for your trouble. Plus you may help the company in its service efforts.
- Plan for computer access. I bought a very thin and small Cannon scanner to do OCR on the road. There may be difficulties if you need to go to a client site, for example, and access a lot of paper files etc.
- Try to get the materials ahead of time in electronic format when you go to conferences.
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Access laws and customs for people with disabilities are far from universal. Your "rights" where you live may not be what they are in another country. They may be more limited. They may be stronger. Further, the age of buildings, roads and other public places may affect their potential for accessibility. A 13th century cathedral is not likely to be as accessible as a 21st century hotel and so forth.
Customs vary as well, and these include attitudes towards people with disabilities. My husband tells me that tourists from overseas often look with shock at me as we walk by them in malls -- white cane in my hand and all. I have noticed that some immigrants appear to be unaware of what my cane even means and make no effort to move out of my way. On my part, I'm sure that, if I were in a part of the world where "the crippled" sit on the street and beg, my very American look of reproach would not be appreciated.
In particular, attitudes towards service animals, whether regulated or cultural, can cause blind or visually impaired people some problems. The United Kingdom has strict rules about admitting dogs because, being an island, it can prevent the spread of rabies in do so. In some countries, dogs fall into the same category as rats and, as a result, are regarded as unclean. My friend, Bern, has had rotten fruit thrown at her when she ventures out with her guide dog, Hazey.
It is critical that you do your homework before you travel abroad, whether for business or pleasure. Fortunately, AccessAble Travel Services has made this rather easy. In its "World Destinations" database, you can select the country or countries you will be visiting and obtain information (including links about local access issues, laws and customs.
Definitely look at foreign travel advice intended for every type of traveler to get information about communicating, money exchanges and so forth. Rick Steve's Travel Tips is very thorough.
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Other Tips and Tricks From Travelers With Disabilities
- Be selective when it comes to seating. In my own travels, I try to take an airlines such as Southwest Airlines which allow me to choose my own seat. When I can't go Southwest, I always take the airline's offer of priority seating so I can get help finding my seat and get settled before the rush of boarding really gets started.
- Don't kid around when talking to travel and security personnel. Sure it's tempting to respond "Always!" when the airline check-in person asks you if your luggage has been out of your sight for any period of time or to hold your white cane like a sword when going through security. We use humor to deal with others' awkwardness, but these people are required by law "not to take a joke." You may be detained or even jailed for your witticism.
- Don't assume being disabled means travel and security people will cut you slack. You must be as much or more serious and responsive.
- Ask about discounts when planning to visit entertainment venues such as amusement parks. Many charge people with disabilities the same lower rate they do seniors.
- Ask about companion fares. Some modes of transport charge lower fares or allow you to bring a companion at no extra charge, if you are disabled. When my husband and I took a bus across country, we only had to pay for one ticket. It was worth it to the bus company not to have to have drivers and station staff helping me out.
- Make hotel card keys accessible. Kathy Blackburn suggests, "For hotel key cards, ask the desk clerk to place a piece of tape on the side of the card that should be toward you when you insert the key into the slot. Make sure the clerk doesn't place the tape on the end of the card in such a way that some of it is on both sides."
- Make luggage tags accessible. Blackburn also recommends the large plastic luggage tags which can be brailled with a slate and stylus.
- Book your hotel yourself. Vicki Ratcliffe says, "When traveling alone, I always book the reservation for the hotel rather than have the agency book it for me. By doing this, I can choose a hotel that meets my needs such as one that has a restaurant for meals or one with interior corridors to get from place to place."
- Select gift shops which allow you to touch. AccessAble Travel Services offers this advice: "Enhance your sensory experience by going on tours and visiting gift shops. Some tour groups allow travelers who are visually impaired to experience an exhibit by touching objects otherwise off-limits. Gift shops often sell small scale replicas of monuments you can touch."
- Don't forget your tape recorder. On Rick Steve's Travel Tips, a site visitor writes, "When a blind friend of mine travels, he takes a small tape recorder. He tapes all sorts of things -- from pub conversations to train announcements to the sounds of nature. These tapes are his 'photographs.' It is so much fun listening to the sounds of places he has visited. I think I'll take a tape recorder on my next trip!"
These Are the Rules
Wonder about a specific rule or regulation while traveling? Check these resources.
- Steps Taken to Ensure New Security Requirements Preserve and Respect the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities - USA. Post September 11 security measures affecting air travelers have been developed to improve rather than hinder people with disabilities.
- State Department Travel Warnings - USA. The U.S. Department of State monitors traveler safety issues around the world and issues these advisories, called Travel Warnings (updated promptly) about whether it is safe to travel in certain cities, countries or regions of the world. The web site gives safety advisories for each country as well as some other very significant information about conditions for travelers, entry and exit requirements, incidence of crime, air travel and traffic safety, health concerns, customs law, and a lot more -- even disaster readiness advice. For example, I discovered that, if I should plan to travel with my child to Papua, New Guinea, I need to bring her birth certificate and other legal documents that prove she is not being abducted. This site is fascinating reading, even if you are only armchair traveling!
Accessible Everything: An Accessible and Inclusive Travel Blog for People with Disabilities
Accessible Everything is a blog about accessibility for disabled people with a special focus on the tourism industry. From the author:
"I have travelled quite extensively and indepedently in Europe and I think it's important to share these experiences, both good and bad, with other disabled people."
"I worked for several years with the Spinal Injuries Association in the United Kingdom which gave me many opportunities and broadened my knowledge of Spinal Injury. I also volunteered for other disability associations which helped me understand other types of disabilities."
"In January 2002, I moved to Barcelona and taught English as a Second Language for several months. During this time I travelled independently in Germany for over a month, going from town to town by train. I had some problems in Berlin due to the lack of information for disabled travellers, such as accessibility in museums, hotels and restaurants."
"When I returned to Barcelona, I decided to help disabled people that wanted to visit the city by writing a short access guide. This guide, AccessibleBarcelona is available on the internet at http://www.accessiblebarcelona.com and I hope that it helps many people to travel more confidently."
"I still live in Barcelona and I should imagine that much of this blog will be related to my experiences both here and whilst travelling in other countries."
Click this link to visit the Accessible Everything blog at http://www.craiggrimes.com.
British Website Lists Accessible Rentals in More than 20 Countries
AccessAtLast.com is a one-stop shop for accessible bookings (it guarantees level-access showers) to vacation home and apartment rentals from England to Indonesia.
The site bills itself as "the only website in the world advertising only accommodation with at least one room with a level access shower."
The company's goal is to make life accessible for mobility impaired people wishing to travel the world, regardless of one's physical limitations. The website provides detailed information covering all aspects of accessibility for its property listings, located in twenty countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, continental Europe, Turkey, Indonesia, and the United States.
Most properties are high end, such as a Normandy farmhouse that includes a private heated pool fitted with an Oxford Dipper Hoist (there's one in the house, too), or the Cotswold cottage with an electric bed, shower chair, and teletext; Canary Island bungalows, Turkish hotels, Italian resorts, all can be booked through AccessAtLast.
Each AccessAtLast listing includes enough information for a disabled traveler to determine if the house, apartment, or villa meets their accessibility needs. Listings specify such details as:
- Width of doorways
- Bed, toilet, and clothes rack heights
- Availability of electric beds
- Level-access showers (guaranteed)
- Manual shower chairs and grabrails
- Pool and indoor wheelchair lifts
- Availability of accessible transportation.
Disabled travelers seeking getaway ideas can find inspiration in the site's Accommodation of the Month. Bargain hunters might search the site's "Last Minute Offers" section for even greater deals!
AccessAtLast's WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) compliant website, which supports screen readers used by the blind, also includes customer reviews, a mobility shop featuring wheelchairs and accessories, and a signup for an accessible travel newsletter. A recently added feature is an advanced-search capability for multi-room accommodations sorted by country or region.
Click this link to visit AccessAtLast.com.