Oh, the Places You Can Go

by Andy Vladimir on January 1, 2007 - 3:12pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 1

Ten years ago, in 1997, I stopped walking and started using a three-wheeled Amigo scooter. My myotonic muscular dystrophy had finally done me in (or so I thought).

Before that, I'd circled the globe. I'd been up the Swiss Alps and down the Grand Canyon. I'd walked the back streets of Bangkok and Unter den Linden, the main street of Berlin.

But now I was sunk. I couldn't go anywhere, and my days as a travel maven were over.

Lord knows, I tried. But my frustrations started as soon as I arrived at an airport. At every airport I was told to go to the main luggage check-in counter, where I was then instructed to wait until a wheelchair could be obtained. Against my wishes I was then transferred into the airport's chair.

My scooter disappeared, and if I was lucky I would find it in one piece with my other luggage at my destination. Meanwhile, I was wheeled down to the gate where I was transferred to another wheelchair to board the plane.

You know the story. Like me, some of you, I'm sure, have been left abandoned in empty airport concourses, had your chair or scooter broken (with no offer to help pay for repairs), or been treated like a piece of baggage yourself, instead of a real live, breathing person.

But that was then.

A new day

It's safe to say that for the most part those days are over. The airlines have gotten their act together.

"Now they know we're out there," said Steve Mydanick, director of Corporate Affairs of SATH (Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality).

Bruce Olson, Continental Airlines Manager of Airport Servicing, Government Affairs, agrees.

"There are now very specific regulations in place guaranteeing that persons with disabilities have equal access," he said. He cites as examples movable armrests, accessible lavatories and onboard wheelchairs.

There are still challenges to be overcome, Olson said. "We still receive more complaints concerning how we treat people in wheelchairs than on any other subject. Specific complaints largely center around delays in getting off airplanes and on airplanes."

Nevertheless, in my view, the skies are a lot friendlier now. On my most recent trip on Southwest Airlines, I checked my luggage curbside, then rolled right through a special gate and up to the door of the airplane, in my own scooter. There, I was transferred onto an aisle wheelchair and into a bulkhead seat.

At the end of the flight, my scooter, which had been carried in a special compartment, was on the jetway before the other passengers had disembarked. Wow!

To-do list

The consensus of the experts I spoke with was that things had improved vastly in the last 10 years. SATH Director of Education Roberta Schwartz told me, "There is a lot more awareness and a lot more interest in travel for persons with disabilities."

Not everything is coming up roses yet. She noted that hotel salespersons still haven't been trained to tell the difference between what's accessible and what isn't, and service personnel need more training in meeting our needs.

Accessibility standards among hotel chains are inconsistent, but in my experience Residence Inns by Marriott does a pretty good job of giving me exactly the same accessible rooms everywhere. Microtel Inns and Suites requires that, in each of its hotels, every room classification must have an accessible counterpart.

Candy Harrington, editor of Emerging Horizons magazine (a really good source of travel ideas founded just 10 years ago), said that travel by people with disabilities has increased as more new hotels and restaurants are being built to comply completely with ADA standards.

"For instance, more fast food restaurants have accessible bathrooms," she said.

Harrington also said her magazine is receiving more demands for information about adventure travel, such as horseback riding and wagon trains.

Resourceful resorts

Last year my family had a reunion at Snow Mountain Ranch at the YMCA of the Rockies in Winter Park, Colo., which offered both horses and wagons for me. It was just great.

Snow Mountain Ranch is a good example of a resort/conference center built to be completely accessible. We rented a "reunion cabin" that had an accessible master bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor, with total accommodations for 25 people.

There were accessible trails, arts and crafts, horseback riding, and just about anything else you could ask for. We were there in the summer, but in winter, this area is renowned for its accessible skiing programs. Check out the Web site at www.ymcarockies.com.

Another favorite venue for family travel and reunions is cruise ships. The newer ones are completely accessible, many with amenities such as lifts to help you into the swimming pools and Jacuzzis, accessible steam baths and saunas, and transfer systems to get you to shore when tenders are needed. At this writing my favorite line for travelers with disabilities is Royal Caribbean and its sister line, Celebrity. Chairman and CEO Richard Fain is committed to making Royal Caribbean our line of choice.

Get going online

More than anything else, the Internet has without doubt changed things for those of us who like to travel.

Emerging Horizons itself is a wonderful example of what you can find in print and on the Internet about places you can go. In looking through the archives at www.emerginghorizons.com, I found the name of an accessible hotel in Palermo, Sicily (Villa Igea), a map of accessible bathrooms in Paris (which I could have used on my last trip there), the location of the red light district in Berlin (Stuttgarter Platz in Charlottenburg) and a list of accessible furniture showrooms in North Carolina.

You can spend all week on this site alone just planning a trip. How about a honeymoon in Tehran or a romantic getaway to an accessible cottage in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific?

I also tracked down Cheryl Duke on the Internet. Founders of Opening Doors (www.travelguides.org and www.wcduke.com), the Duke family has firsthand experience in traveling with disabilities, including hearing loss, short stature, degenerative arthritis, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which affects son Paul, 37.

This amazing family pursues its mission to open the doors of independence through travel in a variety of ways. First and foremost (to me anyway) are their accessible travel guides for Virginia, New Mexico, Australia, Minnesota, Peterborough (Ontario) and Tuscaloosa County (Ala.). Would that every destination could produce guides like these! They tell you everything you'd ever want to know about accessibility in lodgings, restaurants and attractions.

Duke agreed that the Internet has made traveling for people with disabilities much easier. "It was hard to find an accessible bathroom in the old days," she told me. "People's idea of what 'accessible' means has changed.

"Before, they used to say, 'Certainly our restaurant is accessible. All you have to do is get up two stairs.' Now they tell us, 'It isn't accessible.'"

The missing link is training, Duke said. Many employees in the travel businesses are still actually afraid to approach someone with a disability or don't know how to deal with them.

Opening Doors also presents about 60 training programs per year for the travel industry. One of their clients is Microtel Inns and Suites, a chain committed to maximum accessibility. As the chain's Web site points out at www.microtelinn.com, compliance with ADA standards isn't enough. They strive for "attitude accessibility."

The Opening Doors training, which is offered to all staff at every Microtel, teaches hospitality employees how to be friendly and helpful to travelers with disabilities. It also teaches practical skills in customer relations, proce-dures, emergency and safety considerations, and an awareness of "people first" terminology.

On the road again

The bottom line of all of this for me is that I'm back to traveling again. The picture has improved tremendously since I began using a scooter.

Since 1997 I've visited 14 countries and 12 states. In the last two months alone, I've logged at least a couple of thousand miles.

I have a real yearning to visit Reykjavik, Iceland, and I've found someone there who's willing to exchange their accessible home for mine in Coconut Grove, Fla.! Oh, the places I've gone!

Two standbys

In July-August 2004, I wrote a Quest article about Las Vegas, one of the most accessible destinations in the world. But I missed something that makes it even better for visitors who use portable lifts.

The Mirage, Bellagio, Treasure Island and Wynn resorts all have rooms with ceiling track systems installed by SureHands. You can go, win a million dollars, then ride around your room looking down at all that money, spread out on the floor beneath you.

But I think the best place of all to see how travel for people with disabilities has changed over the last decade is the world's most popular tourist destination, Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla. I was there for the first time in October 1971, the very first week it opened.

In 2006, 35 years later, I wanted to see how accessibility had changed. I stayed in the same hotel, the Contem-porary Resort, which has been elegantly remodeled. I wasn't using a scooter in 1971, but by 1997 I needed every as-sistive device they had for my scooter.

Jay Cardinali, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Manager of Global Operations for Guests with Disabilities, told me that accessibility wasn't a major priority when his department opened 12 years ago. Disney has always been customer ori-ented, but as the demand for access to the park grew, the company recognized the need for a group of specialists to make certain that every ride and resort was as accessible as it could be.

"The mandate then, as it is now, was to do everything we could to meet the needs and expectations of our guests," he told me.

Some of the rides and facilities needed small modifications, others more. For instance, one of the first things I noted last year was an elevator from the hotel to the monorail, which transports guests to the Disney theme parks. That was new - before, I couldn't board from that hotel and had to take the bus into the park.

Cardinali said one of the first rides to be modified was It's a Small World, to which Disney added an accessible boat that you could just roll onto. Then they did the same for the Jungle Cruise, which was a much more complex problem.

The newest examples of Disney's accessibility efforts can be seen at Mission: SPACE in Epcot and Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom. In Mission: SPACE Disney has successfully created some of the sensations and sounds you might experience on a trip to Mars. The problem was, some people were afraid of going on it - especially people with certain kinds of disabilities.

The solution is brilliant and innovative. There are now two Mission: SPACE rides in the same building. The original version has all the bells and whistles, and the second has a less intense ride that just about anyone can enjoy. I tried it and it's a topnotch ride; one of the best.

The new Expedition Everest is a high-speed roller coaster, and a big one at that, at 199 feet. Just stopping in front of it was enough to make me think of going home!

But Disney knows that some wheelchair users love these rides, so they built some cars with a side door entrance to make transfers from wheelchairs easier. Then they went even further and put one of the cars out front at the entrance to the ride so riders with mobility impairments and other difficulties could actually get in and check it out before getting on the roller coaster.

You want to go everywhere? Start with Disney World - you can go everywhere and do everything! Even the beaches at all the Disney resorts are accessible. If that's not far enough, with today's technology you can find out how to get anywhere and get around when you do it.

Did you know that almost all the city buses in New York and Honolulu are completely wheelchair accessible?

What are you waiting for?

Andy Vladimir is an assistant professor emeritus at Florida International University School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and a former advertising agency executive. Before joining FIU he was director of tourism for Bermuda. He's owned two travel agencies and authored 10 books. In February John Wiley & Sons will release the second edition of his Selling the Sea - An Inside Look at the Cruise Industry, and later this year the Educational Institute will publish the sixth edition of his textbook, Hospitality Today - An Introduction.

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