The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates accessibility and equal treatment for disabled travelers. It’s the law in the USA. A lawsuit recently settled which brings the importance of compliance to the forefront. The U.S. Department of Justice charged Greyhound Lines with failing to comply with the ADA. They claimed Greyhound did not provide accessible transportation and related services to individuals with disabilities. Specifics included “…failing to maintain accessibility features on its bus fleet such as lifts and securement devices; failing to provide passengers with disabilities assistance boarding and exiting buses at rest stops; and failing to allow customers traveling in wheelchairs to complete their reservations online.”
The United States vs. Greyhound Bus lawsuit issued a Consent Decree stating in part:
“… individuals who have a disability and experienced disability discrimination by Greyhound between Feb. 8, 2013 and Feb. 8, 2016 are potentially eligible to receive compensation, which will be distributed by a claims administrator.”
The Act changed people’s perspectives and focus on health issues into civil rights for disabled people, not only in the United States, but in nations around the world since President George Bush signed the act into law on July 26, 1990. In 2006, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities mirrored basic civil rights for disabled persons, including access to education, transportation, and more. (The United States is reluctant to sign on because it could dilute the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
To fully prepare for a trip abroad, it is essential to take a travel safety course, such as Depart Smart’s Travel HEROES Travel Safety Training.
Learn about your destination
Every country has its own principles for disability rights. Traveling with a disability often means navigating uncertain landscapes. Standards of accessibility will be different from country to country, and from region to region. The U.S. Department of State recommend Mobility International USA as a trusted resource for Americans with disability going abroad, and for incoming travelers. It is a resource promoting what is really possible versus what is permissible, including a fun Flickr slideshow of unique modes of transport.
The United States Department of State (US DOS) issues country-specific information to help you find important information by country like “local laws and special circumstances.” For Costa Rica, the State Departments cited:
“Travelers Who Require Accessibility Assistance: While in Costa Rica, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation limited. Costa Rica mandates access to transportation, communication and public buildings for persons with disabilities, but laws may not be effectively enforced. Many buildings remain inaccessible and the Costa Rican Ombudsman’s Office has received several noncompliance reports regarding accessibility or malfunctioning of hydraulic wheelchair lifts for public transportation. “
Take another quick look at the State Department’s accessibility assistance information on Ireland:
“Travelers Who Require Accessibility Assistance. While in Ireland, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation very different from that in the United States. Accessibility to hotels, bed and breakfasts, shops, and restaurants varies widely. Travelers should inquire about accessibility issues with the business before making reservations.
- Irish law requires access to government buildings for persons with disabilities and that public service providers ensure their services are accessible to those with mobility, sensory, and/or cognitive impairments.
- Parking: Local authorities and commercial premises have no legal obligation to provide external disabled parking facilities for their customers; however, on-street parking, public building parking lots, and internal parking lots always have disabled spaces available, for which a permit is required.
- Buses and Trains: The majority of buses and trains in main urban areas of Ireland are now equipped for those with limited mobility, sight, or hearing disabilities, although some train stations and pathways may not be as easily accessible.
- Main line and suburban trains require special portable ramps to permit boarding from the platforms to the carriages. These are available at all terminal points, and major junctions and stations that have staff on duty. Travelers are advised to contact Irish Rail, Dublin Bus, and Bus Eireann for their travel assistance information.
- Residents of Ireland who meet the medical disability requirements may apply for free travel passes. There is also a blind/invalidity pension from the Irish Department of Social Protections for those who qualify.”
In addition to helpful information on your destination, you will also find helpful tips:
Pre-travel health check
It’s a good idea to get a pre-travel health check for preventive vaccinations or oral medications if needed. Discuss any potential health concerns and get a very accurate list of your medications and dosages. In an emergency room setting in a foreign country, “I take a little blue pill for blood pressure,” is not sufficient for a physician to make an identification. Your doctor can write a prescription in case your medications are lost or stolen. Meds should be with you, not in checked luggage. It is wise to carry your medications in original containers.
Oxygen, wheels and devices
Airlines may limit the number of carry on items you bring onto the plane. Mobility and medical devices do not count as one of your carry-ons. Canes, canisters, wheelchairs or walkers, CPAP machines etc. are all allowed as carry-ons. However, electronic devices may need prior approval by the airline at least 48 hours before flight time. You may need to demonstrate that you know and understand flight rules for the use of portable oxygen concentrators and tanks.
Travel agents for every need
Some travel agencies specialize in handicap excursions, a travel agent will be able to answer accessibility and special need questions about transportation and lodging.
You should also consider your assets and resources. Do you have, or can you hire, a traveling companion to assist, or can you receive these services from the airplane or tour operator? Do you have an emergency contact who would be able to assist you in a crisis? Do you have backup equipment in case your equipment fails? Did you bring and electronically store in a secure way all of your important health insurance cards and documents? Remember to buy travel insurance. It can cost a small fortune of $50,000 or more to evacuate you back home if you need an air ambulance. You may also need to check fine print for exclusions.
Transportation Service Administration (TSA) readiness
Check in with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and read about disabilities and medical conditions. The 3-1-1 liquids rule limiting carry-on liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes to 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less per item. Placing these items in the small quart sized plastic bag and separating from your carry-on baggage facilitates the screening process. Pack items that are in containers larger than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters in checked baggage.”
TSA Cares Hotline: Passengers with questions are encouraged to contact the TSA Cares Help Line. TSA Cares is a helpline to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. TSA recommends that passengers call 72 hours ahead of travel for information about what to expect during screening. Travelers may call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. TSA Cares will serve as an additional, dedicated resource specifically for passengers with disabilities, medical conditions or other circumstances or their loved ones who want to prepare for the screening process prior to flying.
TSA Passenger Support Specialist: Travelers may also request a Passenger Support Specialist ahead of time by calling the TSA Cares hotline. The hours of operation for the TSA Cares help line are Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. EST and weekends and Holidays 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. EST. Travelers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use a relay service to contact TSA Cares.
Check state and country laws and TSA rules on prescription meds. Make sure your meds are clearly labeled. Liquid medications need to be removed from your carry on bag. Additional screening may be needed for liquid volumes that do not fit in a quart sized bag. If you need to carry medically necessary liquids, separate them from your other belongings and declare them to your TSA officer. The 3-1-1 liquids rule may not always apply.
If you’re traveling with a prosthesis, cast, a brace or another kind of support appliance, inform your TSA officer. You can speed this process along by acquiring a TSA Disability Notification card. You and your device will be screened with imaging technology or a pat-down. Be aware: if for some reason your cast, brace or support appliance is subject to further screening, you may need to remove it so it can be X-rayed. You are not required to remove a prosthesis. It may still require additional screening. If the additional screening in front of others makes you uncomfortable, you can ask for a private screening in another room.
Consider voltages abroad
If you travel with an electrical device, make sure you’re equipped with the right outlet and voltage converter to charge in your destination. Plugging into a foreign voltage or socket shape can be dangerous to you and your equipment.
Consider manual wheelchairs
Under some circumstances, an easily-assembled manual wheelchair, rather than an electrical wheelchair, might be best for travel. More industrialized nations are more likely to have ramps, lifts and pathways accessibility to a modern motorized wheelchair, but less industrialized nations can make getting around in one difficult. You should also consider whether any breakages will be easy to repair at your destination. Manual wheelchairs are less complicated and easier to fix.
If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, you should inform the TSA officer. Using the TSA Disability Notification Card is a discreet way to alert them. TSA does not require removal of hearing aids or cochlear implants. Many airports are upgrading to induction loop systems that allow hearing aid and cochlear implant users to hear clearly despite poor acoustics or background noise. Hearing aids must be switched to ‘telecoil’ or ‘T’ settings. The following airports have induction loop systems:
- Boston Logan International Airport
- Muskegon Airport
- Los Angeles International Airport
- Kalamazoo/Battle Creek airport
- Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport,
- Detroit Airport (Delta terminal)
- Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids
- South Bend International Airport
- Helsinki Airport (Finavia information desks)
- Ballina/Byron Gateway Airport (check-in area)
- Newcastle Airport
- Brisbane Airport
- Melbourne Airport
- Heathrow Airport
- Gatwick Airport
- Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam
Always alert the TSA officer for special assistance. If you travel with a cane, a Braille note taker or another aid, they may need to be inspected separately. Let the TSA officer know they need to reunite you with these items immediately after screening. United Airlines is one of the first airlines to offer closed-captioning on individual monitors via DIRECT TV on all channels.
Personal Medical Electronic Devices (PMEDs) like pacemakers, neurostimulators, implantable cardio defibrillators, insulin pumps, blood glucose monitors, etc., should be screened by imaging technology or a pat down, not with x-ray. If you travel with an external medical device and you can safely remove it, do so before screening. If you can’t safely remove it, a TSA officer may need to inspect it. If the device is in a sensitive area, you can request a private screening in another room.
TSA may ask you to remove a nebulizer, CPAP, BiPAP or APAP from its carrying case to undergo X-ray screening. Facemasks and tubing may remain in the case. The device can be placed into a clear plastic container for the x-ray conveyor. A TSA officer may need to test it for traces of explosives. Liquids associated with the nebulizer are exempt from the 3-1-1 liquids rule. If you travel with respiratory equipment, you should call in and let the airline know before you fly. Not all airlines allow the use of portable oxygen containers. Always inform the airline and TSA officer that you have a portable oxygen container. Again, you or someone with you will need to demonstrate that you can safely operate the container and follow rules pertaining to it.
If you have an ostomy
If you’re traveling with an ostomy, let your TSA officer know where it’s located before the screening process begins. The TSA Disability Notification Card is a discreet way to do so. This will avoid pat downs in the ostomy area. You can be screened without emptying or exposing it. If further screening is necessary, you can request to do a self pat-down rather than having the officer do it for you. Ostomy scissors shorter than 4” are allowed. People with Crohn’s and Colitis can show an “I Can’t Wait Card” to help avoid long lines and get express services.
Autism, Alzheimer’s and Mental Impairment
If you have autism or an intellectual disability, alert the TSA officer before the screening. Travelers with intellectual or developmental disabilities can go through screening with the company of their travel companions. If communicating the disability is difficult, you can provide an information card to the officer with all the necessary details. Requesting a wheel chair to ease the individual to the gate can save time and stress.
If you travel with a walker, a crutch, a cane or a wheelchair, these items will need to go through screening. Make sure you don’t have any prohibited items in any of the pouches or cushions of your wheelchair before you approach the TSA officer. If you can neither stand nor walk long enough for a screening, the TSA officer will execute a pat-down while you’re sitting.
Find lifelines at your destination
Before you go abroad, you should make sure you know where to find resources that can help you out in a tough situation. Mobility International USA can help you find disability resources in your destination.
You should register your trip with the State Department and get friendly with your local United States Embassy or Consulate. They’re your lifeline back to the United States, and you’re go-to in case there’s an emergency situation abroad. Make sure you know where it’s located and how to get in touch. You will receive emergency alerts while you are abroad when you register.
Do you know the appropriate emergency number at your destinations? We all know how to call 911, but in different countries, the numbers are different. There may even be multiple emergency numbers for different emergency situations, like police, fire and ambulance. You may also need to learn a few life-saving phrases in the native language to ask for help and identify your location.
Update your personal health record
Everyone should have an online personal health record at the ready. This is just a secure file with your important health information. If you’re injured or incapacitated, especially when abroad, a personal health record can allow your care provider to give you quick, accurate and effective treatment. Make sure you include information about your disability, physicians, insurance, any chronic health conditions, allergies, recent surgeries, family history and medications you currently take. Depart Smart published an entire article on the importance of personal health records. Also have the most important of this information translated into the local language.
The right insurance
If there’s an emergency and you need medical attention or emergency evacuation, having travel medical insurance can get you to the best possible care, provide language translation services, get your loved ones to your bedside, and get you home without costing you the price of a small house. Read exclusions and fine print. Some travel insurance programs are null and void if the policyholder was under the influence of alcohol, for example.
Accessibility and you
Everyone’s disability is different, so every travel plan should be unique. If any of these circumstances apply to you, make sure you take them into account when you plan your trip:
Traveling with Service animals
There are a few steps you should take to make sure that you and your animal partner are ready to travel safely. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that all business which served the public must allow service animals, and are not allowed to charge extra or separate you from others.
- Research your destination: Each country will have different regulations and cultural norms when it comes to service animals. Check this out on the USDOS country-specific information page.
- Vaccinate: Find out whether you have quarantines or vaccination requirements to be concerned about. Both you and your service animal should be properly immunized well in advance and you will need to keep documentation as evidence that you are compliant.
- Go for a checkup: Travelers should see their doctors before they go abroad, and your service animal should see theirs. Make sure your service animal is healthy enough to travel. The veterinarian will have useful tips for feeding and toileting your animal on the plane. And tips for entry and return. You’ll need papers to proof their healthiness.
- Double-check your trip: Make sure your transportation, hotel and activities can accommodate both you and your service animal.
- Check airport return accommodations: It’s a good idea to check with the airport about your return so you know what is and what is not possible.
Accessibility and your loved ones
If you need help during your travel, make sure your helpers have legal rights to provide for you with a power of attorney. Here are a few tips to get your travel companions and emergency contacts as travel savvy as you are:
- Leave detailed instructions: Your emergency contacts should have all the necessary information about your health and your disability to help you if something happens. Make sure you leave detailed instructions for them, and prep them with another contact in case they need to go abroad to help you. You should also plan to keep a line of communication open and check in with them throughout your trip. They will also need passports good for six months beyond your return date to get to you if needed.
- Make sure your care providers are informed: Instructions to access your personal health record could be inside your patient records. If you’re traveling in a country where English isn’t the primary language, you should have key considerations translated into the native language and kept with the English version.
- Prep your travel companions: Traveling with friends and family? Make sure they can help you in case of emergency. Give them some basic procedures in case something happens and you need help. This is also a good time to set boundaries and let them know what you are prepared to do on your own. That way, you’ll have a plan at hand and can relax and have fun together for the rest of the trip.
- Consider carrying an information card: If communicating everything necessary about your disability is difficult – or if the language in your destination is something other than English – consider carrying an information card so you can let strangers know what they need to do in order to help you during an emergency.
Before you go, make sure you’re safe with Depart Smart.org.