Traveling with a disability

Travelling with a disability is far from easy. But it is exactly what I have been doing for the past 36 years. I have had my disability since 1978 after sustaining a T4 spinal cord injury in a car wreck. At that time I was 20 years old and still believed I had the world at my feet and after rehabilitation, I would continue to live my life as I wanted to: working, shopping, going out to dinner, having adventures with friends and family and travelling.

In 1978, rehabilitation meant learning to dress yourself, transfer to and from your chair, safely cook in a kitchen that was not designed to accommodate functioning in a wheelchair – basically doing everything just a little bit lower than face level.

The first step in continuing a normal life (pre-injury) I purchased a van, equipped with a wheelchair lift and hand controls. Now I would have my independence back!

It didn’t take long to realize that I was now living in a world that was approximately 90% inaccessible to me without assistance, at least one person to help me with curbs, stairs, heavy doors and other barricades that were not taken into consideration when design was done.

Fortunately and thankfully, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility an accommodation for all types of disability are being considered in the beginning phases of architectural design, city planning, and other forms of daily living. But inevitably when travelling, some form of in-access will need to be addressed before venturing into unfamiliar territory.

Here are a few things that I do in before going to an area or building that is new to me.

If I know I will be staying in a hotel, I have the luxury of owning a laptop, smartphone and internet access. Technology can go a long way in the process of planning. The first thing to do is go online (hopefully the hotel has a website that is “accessible”) to see if they have details to their accessibility. Guidelines set forth in the ADA make standardized accommodations easy to recognize. I look at the layout of the building, accessible rooms they offer, on-site dining, pool and/or hot tub accessibility (lift) and even flooring. Thick carpet can be very exhausting when using a manual wheelchair.

Some friends with a similar disability utilize Google’s “street view” to actually look for barriers to an entrance of a building, even going so far as to drive by ahead of time to see if it’s accessible.

Next, I call the hotel and ask to speak with the manager. I ask these questions:

  • Is there accessible parking in a well lit area near the hotel entrance?
  • Do they have automatic doors, assistance to help my with my bags?
  • Does the roll-in shower have a lip around it or is it flush with the floor? (I happen to dislike doing wheelies)
  • Is there a shower bench provided and a wall mount, adjustable showerhead (does it slide up and down) and will housekeeping be willing to clean the shower bench with bleach once I arrive?
  • Are there wall mounted hand/grab bars inside the tub area?
  • Does the sink/vanity accommodate a wheelchair to roll under, if so are pipes wrapped with insulation to prevent burns due to hot water, or injury from ramming a knee or leg into the pipe?
  • Is the mirror at counter level or several inches higher? (which makes it impossible to see anything but the top of your head!)
  • Are the electrical outlets at counter level?
  • Is the blow dryer mounted low enough to reach from a sitting position?
  • How wide is the open doorway into the bathroom?
  • Can a wheelchair turn a complete circle once inside?
  • How much space is there between the wall and bed?
  • If there are two beds how much space is between them? Some people can only transfer out of their wheelchair from one side.
  • Can lights be turned off at the bedside, if so how high is the switchplate? I’ve stayed in places where I get into bed, reach to turn the light off and discover it’s too high to reach.
  • Is there an electrical outlet either on the lamp base to plug in my charger for the cell phone? And, I always travel with a small flashlight and extension cord.

I have learned that by asking these questions in advance I can save a lot of difficulties and not end up trying to find another hotel after a long day of travel. Most hotels are more than happy and willing to accommodate me. I have even had the staff take photos and measurements of doorways, and decks/balconies and email them to me in case some aspect of the accessibility looks questionable. A website like BluePath could remove this laborious task and make travelling much easier.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that, if possible, always carry your cell phone. You never know when you might need to call the front desk from your beautiful ocean view balcony and ask if there might be a staff person available to come help you get back into your room because you inadvertently managed to get your wheelchair lodged between two deck chairs and are unable to untangle yourself…yes that would be me!

Are You Getting Your Share of the Disability Market?

Disability Action Center, NW along with Lane Independent Living Alliance wants to create a more inclusive community for all residents. The online directory project is designed to help individuals with disabilities work and live independently in their community. And as more businesses become increasingly accessible to people with disabilities this has the potential for wide reaching and lasting economic impact on the community at large and yield quality, long lasting benefits and outcomes for all its citizens.

There is a huge, growing and virtually untapped market out there.

More than 20% of Americans are living with a disability. Wounded veterans are returning in record numbers and baby boomers are developing similar, age-related limitations by the millions every year. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the country, crossing all ages, genders, races and economic sectors. Customers with disabilities and their friends and families are found everywhere and that represents an estimated $220 billion in discretionary spending. This is twice the spending power of the teen market.

Thinking beyond the local market, if you were a tourist with a disability, where would you pick as a destination to stop at this spring or summer? Say you had a vision problem like macular degeneration, would you be certain that you could find restaurants there with large print, online or Braille menus? Or if you couldn’t climb steps because of a hip replacement, would you know that there were area attractions or stores with easy access?

Does your business’s marketing include information about your accessibility? Would tourists browsing brochure stands or online see that your coffee shop or bookstore or restaurant is accessible?

The Tourist Industry of America tells us that four out of 10 travelers either have a disability themselves or a companion with a disability.

People with disabilities have extra things to consider when they travel that others don’t. When planning vacations online, can they easily tell that they’ll be able to book an accessible room? When deciding on a restaurant to visit, will they see that you have accessible entrances or that you accommodate specific needs?

September 9th marked the very first “Mapathon” event held in the Moscow area to get business surveyed and listed on the BluePath website. Going out en-masse, armed with yardsticks, empowered us as a group. With the BluePath ‘Quick Look checklist it took only 10 minutes for a team to complete the survey. And once the business owner understood the economic benefit they can achieve by being accessible, they were more than happy to assist our Pathfinders.

Clearly, posting your business on is a win-win for all area residents and businesses. Beyond making your business accessible for consumers with disabilities, these improvements also make your business more accessible as a workplace and creates greater employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Did you know that once you become a BluePath Member your business:

  • Is highlighted as accessible on the BluePath website, as well as marketed through local Chambers of Commerce and Centers For Independent Living?
  • Is provided with a window cling that promotes your accessibility?
  • Can receive information on tax incentives for changes to make your business more accessible?
  • Can receive employee training for helping customers with disabilities?
  • Can receive reviews from actual customers to help you reach that level of accessibility.

Often it only takes simple, inexpensive changes to remove these barriers. And these changes are good for business.

Restaurants for People who are Blind

People with visual impairments or blindness are as diverse in their needs and preferences when dining out as are any other group of the general public. Let’s highlight the differences of a first impression whether its through the eyes, or the ears, nose and tactile/kinesthetic senses. Eating out is more than the mundane act of shoveling calories into one’s mouth. It involves ALL the senses. Decisions about where to eat and whether to return for future meals is based on whether the staff takes the time to make you feel comfortable.

You need to consider:

  • Smells that are inviting and compelling
  • Physical layout
  • Noisiness
  • How the menu is presented (online, large print or Braille)
  • Service and sensitivity of the restaurant staff
  • Does the patron feel his or her business is valued

How gracious the staff is has an impact on the welcoming “feel” of an establishment.

Seeking out a restaurant

There are many options for learning about places to dine for people with visual impairments. The recommendations of friends, advertising and web directories such as BluePath are great places to start. When hearing of a new place, I often go to their website to learn more.

  • Is their site accessible to screen readers and smart phones
  • Is it easy to read and navigate
  • Does it provide a menu along with prices
  • Are there more than pictures to describe menu options. A well-written description of what a dish contains is much appreciated! For example: indicate whether a dish contains penne pasta or linguini. (one is far messier than the other!)
  • Is accurate information given over the phone about location, hours and options?

Good customer service in these areas can set the stage for a positive experience.

Olfactory impact

Imagine walking down the street looking for somewhere to have dinner. As you approach a diner, the scent of freshly baked bread enters your nose. Your mouth begins to water and your stomach growls. Olfactory advertising at its best! Now imagine the same diner with the same delicious bread. Unfortunately, the odor greeting the passerby comes from the dumpster – definitely don’t want to go in there!

Once inside, what scents greet patrons? Is the bathroom clean? Is there sufficient ventilation to remove the smells of previous patrons? Are the rugs and drapes capturing the smells of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and other odors? I have friends that frequent a Mexican restaurant which has great food and a wonderful atmosphere, but unfortunately for me, smells like an old cat. I will eat there, but only under duress for I have never really liked cats!

Physical layout

I’ve checked the restaurant out on-line, been enticed in by the great smells coming from the kitchen and am not turned away by the odor of old cats or the smell of a dirty lavatory. Now it’s time to consider the physical environment of the restaurant.

Is there enough room to get into and out of the table without invading the personal space of other patrons? Recently I went to a small bistro, and on the way back to our seats I accidentally bumped into a nearby table, hard enough to rattle the wine glasses and silverware. That’s extremely embarrassing. Did I do any damage? What if something spilled? Leaving clear paths of travel helps everyone feel more comfortable. No twisting sideways! You might be able to squeeze in a few more tables but why create an atmosphere of overcrowding and a sense of claustrophobia?

Background noise

Dining out is an intensely social experience. People go out to get away from home and enjoy spending time with friends. Those moments between sitting down and eating are very important. Can patrons converse without screaming at one another? I recently attempted a meal at a sports bar and never finished it. The noise was tremendous. The wait staff could barely make themselves heard over the televisions and intoxicated patrons. I ordered, ate a portion of my meal and escaped to the blessed silence of the parking lot, ears ringing and nerves jangled. My general rule is that if I have to shout to make myself heard, it’s not a place worthy of a return visit.

Service and support

The difference between going once and returning frequently to a restaurant most heavily depends on the level of service and support from the staff. Do they take the time to make sure you are comfortable?

Here are 5 basic tips which can help:

  1. Offer to provide information about the restaurant. Important landmarks include the location of  restrooms and table features like napkin dispensers. Some guests may appreciate holding onto an arm when walking to the table. This means allowing the patron to lightly hold an upper arm just above the elbow. It isn’t always necessary, but the offer is always appreciated. Don’t push or pull a person needing assistance – that’s intimidating for everyone involved. When you arrive at the table, position the patron so it is obvious where the chair or booth is located. Inquire if more information is necessary for the diner’s orientation.
  2. Take time to read a menu or explain a dish. If the establishment has a braille or accessible online menu, fantastic! But if not, please take a few minutes to explain the specialties of the house and make a recommendation. The wait staff should be well versed in menu and drink options, and feel comfortable describing what’s in a dish.
  3. Don’t just drop food and drinks on the table and walk away. Statements like: “Beer on your left” or “Caesar salad with garlic bread” are very helpful. It’s off putting to need to tactilely search for, and then guess, which glass contains which beverage on a crowded table. It’s socially awkward to say to a dining companion: “Is this my water?”
  4. Take time to read the bill out loud to the patron. A statement like: “Your check comes to $32.49 and includes the bread, appetizer, pasta primavera and a glass of wine” will help insure the bill is correct and no questions about charges remain. Offer to assist with finding the signature line and to provide a customer receipt.
  5. Relax! Blind patrons are not much different than other diners. We come for good food, good company, and a chance to unwind and relax. We want to be treated with courtesy and sensitivity.

Please remember, those of us with visual impairments are people first. Our needs are as unique and varied as those of any other social group. But our goals are the same – to have a good time. We come to have our senses stimulated, to share conversation with friends, and to feel our business is appreciated.