Tips on travelling with a family member who has reduced mobility

by la petite bette

You shouldn’t be prevented from travelling because you or a family member have a condition that affects mobility. However, it’s always wise to look for ways to make the experience as pleasant as possible.

Our 12‑year‑old son, Malek, has cerebral palsy. His disability prevents him from walking long distances and using his hands properly. Malek has been travelling with us in his wheelchair since he was out of his stroller, and our wanderlust has by no means faded. Our dream is to bring Malek and his twin sister, Alizée, on as many adventures and family trips as possible – at least until they get tired of following us! Practically since they were born, we have been travelling at least once a year with them, along with my father and his wife – multi‑generational travels and a multitude of souvenirs.

Plan for (almost) everything. 

Taking a trip on a whim may no longer be in the cards if you, your spouse, one of your children or a parent has a disability. You have to ask yourself questions about the destination and the types of adventures you are ready to embark on (or not). A camel trek across the desert or even a visit to New York City could become a lot more complicated than you think. Choosing a hotel on the beach might not be advisable, especially after you have tried pushing a wheelchair on soft sand.

Kéroul provides helpful directories of tour operators and organizations to help you plan accessible travel, transportation and activities, both in Canada and abroad.

Take advantage of the situation.

Many airlines and cultural and sporting events offer discounts or free passes to grant people with reduced mobility easier access. My husband and I have often taken advantage of a free entry as an official accompanying person. Be sure to carry an official document for proof of reduced mobility, even though you won’t always be asked to show it. Have on hand a valid card from a recognized association or institution for persons with disabilities (CNIBEaster SealsEpilepsy CanadaThe War AmpsMAB-MACKAY Rehabilitation Centre), or a letter signed by a physician and dated within the last nine months (unless the letter states that the condition is permanent).

A few things to remember when you fly.

We learned many very important lessons the hard way while travelling by plane. Although all airports are equipped to accommodate travellers with reduced mobilityand those who are visually or hearing impaired, getting around isn’t always easy!

Be sure to mention your special needs as soon as you book your flight (Air Canada). If you need a wheelchair or an attendant to help you at the boarding gate, most airlines have to be notified at least 48 hours ahead of time. Ask whether you can use your own wheelchair (electric or otherwise), orthosis, walker, crutches or any other device to go through security and reach the aircraft door. In the past, we have had to check our son’s wheelchair without even thinking that we needed a chair or transportation in the airport.

Don’t bring too many carry‑ons. Pushing a wheelchair with one hand while pulling a suitcase with the other requires quite a bit of dexterity. We usually check one big suitcase and bring one small suitcase and two backpacks as carry‑ons for the four of us. It may be tempting to try to save on baggage fees, but it’s not worth the effort.

Avoid stopovers, especially when you have to leave the airport and go through security again. In 2014, when the twins were eight years old, we thought it best to stay the night in San Francisco on our way to Maui. We had to get all our luggage and wait for transportation to the hotel. We were left stranded because the vehicle was too full to use the wheelchair lift. It was past midnight, our two kids were already at the end of their ropes, and we had to go to the other end of the airport to use the elevator, to then try to find an adapted taxi. And then we had to do it all again the next morning! Never again.

Take the time to review the stopovers and the time between connecting flights. A layover that is too short is also a bad idea. Sometimes all the passengers have to exit before you can, and then you have to wait for an attendant to bring a wheelchair, walker or another assistive device (or wait for your chair to be taken out at the gate). It’s easy to lose precious minutes that way.

At your destination.

Make sure you ask the right questions before you leave. Is the shuttle provided by the hotel wheelchair accessible? Is the room or house you rented easily accessible? Are there stairs outdoors or indoors? Is there an elevator? Are there accessible parking spaces? Is there a pool adapted to people with reduced mobility? Most all‑inclusive resorts are perfectly accessible, but some are huge! We once had to walk over a kilometre to get from our room to the beach, and then another half‑kilometre to get to the restaurant. That can be a lot of walking for one day.

Is the neighbourhood safe on foot? Are there sidewalks? You may think that’s funny, but when we were in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, in 2017, the villa and the area we stayed in were amazing, but it was practically impossible to get around with a wheelchair (or young children) on the main road. Mopeds and motorcycles drove on the shoulder, and the sidewalks were falling apart. Luckily, we were able to find a driver for the week, so we could make the most of our stay in the area without having to worry about transportation. It was money well spent!

The best advice I can give is to NEVER assume that everything is in order. Even if someone replies, “yes, yes,” ask the same question in a different way at least twice. Most people simply have no idea what can constitute a major obstacle for people with reduced mobility. They’ll tell you there’s an elevator, but they’ll neglect to tell you that there are six concrete stairs to get to the parking lot and no ramp to access it.

On a road trip or when renting a car.

Travelling by car gives you more freedom and control. However, there are certain things to keep in mind.

A wheelchair takes up a lot of space in the trunk. If the vehicle isn’t adapted, it may be difficult to fit in the luggage, pillows, cooler, dog and kids and still have access to the chair for pit stops.

You might want to look online to see if your destination has a map of parking spaces available for people with reduced mobility. In places that are popular with snowbirds, like Walmart, Costco and shopping centres, accessible parking spaces are almost always taken.

Finally, don’t forget to put the disabled parking permit in your carry‑on bag if you plan on renting a car at your destination. Even though our permit is for Quebec, we often use it in the United States, and we’ve never had any issues—except for that one time we forgot it in our car that was parked in our driveway at home.

Be patient.

As much as people and employees at your destination will be kind and caring, tolerance and generosity are scarce when you’re in a crowded airport with thousands of other travellers. Take your place, regardless of whether people are watching you out of the corner of their eye. When you properly plan your trip and ask all the right questions beforehand, everything should go smoothly once you arrive at your destination. If not, you’ll just have a better perspective of your needs for your next adventures. You can’t get discouraged: accessibility is also about being able to travel the world with the ones you love!

Bon voyage!