Travel with a disability can be a smooth, enjoyable journey

While sitting at the Baltimore Washington International airport in March 2019, Lily Yu and her husband were getting energized for a trip to Europe.

After their scheduled flight into Germany, where Yu’s husband Daniel Heidemeyer was born, they planned to rent a car to take a road trip for what would be her first time visiting Italy. But as they sat in the airport, the boarding time kept getting pushed back.

They received meal vouchers around midnight and noticed the other passengers getting angry after the Wow Airlines employees made an announcement. Because Yu and her husband are both deaf, they didn’t understand what had happened until they made calls with a sign language interpreter through a video relay service.

“We found out Wow Air was bankrupt, so they couldn’t run anymore,” she said through an interpreter. “We were in shock and didn’t know what to do.”

Stranded at the airport, they went home. They couldn’t get a refund from the car rental or the hotel, Yu said, and Wow Air’s phone line was busy and the website had shut down.

“It was the worst day of our lives,” Yu said.

Traveling with a disability or chronic health condition can be more difficult than it is for someone who is able-bodied, but not impossible.

Yu and her husband finally made it on that trip, albeit a few days late, and she has since made traveling a side career. She has visited 49 states and nearly 40 countries since she started traveling at age 12. Her Instagram travel account — @DeafJourney — has amassed a following of more than 34,000, as well as hundreds of subscribers on YouTube and nearly 68,000 followers on TikTok.

If you want to see the world but don’t know where to start, these tips can help you get on the road.

Yu takes in the view overlooking the Spanish patio at the Mission Inn. Yu aims to show that people with disabilities can enjoy traveling.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Research accessible hotels, tourist attractions online

When it comes to visiting a particular city on your bucket list, searching online for disability guides can make traveling there a reality.

Travel enthusiast, author and wheelchair user Sylvia Longmire said she looks for accessibility-focused travel bloggers who have been there before, usually starting with her friends’ blogs, like Curb Free with Cory Lee or Wheelchairtravel.org.

“Then I will just do a standard Google search for, I don’t know, ‘wheelchair accessible Nairobi,’ and sometimes there’ll be blogs that I don’t know about,” she said.

Online travel search engines like Kayak, Booking.com and Priceline can be used to find an accessible hotel room by using the “increased accessibility” filter.

Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity and Hotels.com have even more nuanced filters. Those sites include options to help users find places with wheelchair-accessible parking, elevators, accessible bathrooms, roll-in showers, stair-free paths to entrances and sign language-capable staff, as well as locations that allow service animals.

By searching on wheeltheworld.com, travelers find hotels to meet their needs and book multiday group tours for trips to destinations such as Greece, Morocco and New York City. There is also accessibility information for individual tourist attractions, including museums, day cruises, beaches, hikes and kayak tours.

The National Parks Service, which has been working to become more accessible for visitors with disabilities, also reports information for each of its parks online.

Longmire said a destination’s website may have accessibility tips for navigating their attractions, public transportation and the restaurant scene.

“It is a lot of homework because there’s no standard repository,” she said. “Destinations are getting better about realizing the value we have as a market as wheelchair users, but they still, as a whole, don’t know how much money we can bring to the table.”

A woman in a colorful dress takes in the view of circular stairs at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California.

Yu gazes around the Rotunda at the Mission Inn in Riverside. She has visited 49 US states and dozens of countries.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Venture out close to home

Nervous about traveling for the first time? Start by taking a short, local trip to gain confidence, Longmire suggests.

While on active duty in the Air Force, Longmire was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. At first she used a cane, and later a walker, but by 2014, she was using a wheelchair full time.

Longmire starting traveling at a young age with her family, and though she did some solo traveling while in the military, it wasn’t until she left the service that it became a more frequent occurrence. After her divorce in 2015, she re-embraced her desire to see the world.

“I started traveling as a way to heal from that because travel has always been such a passion and a huge part of my life,” Longmire said.

Although she started her string of travel adventures with a trip to Dubai, Longmire said staying local to experience accessible hotel rooms and taxis in a low-stakes scenario can help prepare mobility device users for bigger trips.

“Take baby steps, because traveling for the first time, especially flying, can be overwhelming,” she said. “If you’ve never stayed in a hotel room before as a wheelchair user, stay in a local hotel in your city.”

Look for accessibility-friendly cities

While doing research on navigating a particular bucket list location, visiting cities known to be highly accessible can take some of the guesswork out of the planning process.

Wheelchairtravel.org has a list of guides for cities considered accessible to those who are disabled. It provides information about public transportation, accessible taxi service, attractions, professional sports team venues and shopping.

Among the many destinations listed, some of the most accessible American cities include Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle on the West Coast; New York City, Boston and Washington, DC on the East Coast; and Chicago, Las Vegas and Denver in between.

“Destinations are getting better about realizing the value we have as a market as wheelchair users, but they still, as a whole, don’t know how much money we can bring to the table.”

— Sylvia Longmire, travel enthusiast and wheelchair user

Some of the international destinations listed on the site include Seoul, Berlin, Shanghai, Amsterdam and London.

Longmire said that despite having bad experiences with maneuvering around certain cities, she is always glad to go somewhere and learn something new.

“Bucharest is a rough place — the accessibility is horrible,” Longmire said. “But I learned so much about Romanian history, the remnants of communism and the earthquake that kind of leveled the city some decades ago that they’re still recovering from.”

What to pack, or download

When it comes to preparing for a trip, what you put in your bag is highly personal. There are certain items that can be important.

Depending on where you’re traveling, it’s important to do research about the rules of bringing your medications with you. The US State Department reports that medications should be stored in their original, labeled containers when traveling abroad, and it reminds travelers to check with the embassy of the country you’re visiting to ensure that those medications are allowed in the country.

Wheelchair and mobility device users may want to pack a mobile shower chair, battery charger for power wheelchairs and/or a portable ramp, if traveling by car.

Blind or low-vision travelers can use the free Be My Eyes mobile app to gain assistance from sighted volunteers, who can read signs and menus for someone, or help them navigate unfamiliar surroundings.

A pencil and notepad can be helpful tools for deaf travelers to communicate with hearing people who don’t know sign language, according to the site BRB Gone Somewhere Epic, which is written by a deaf travel blogger.

There is also free video relay service available through the Federal Communications Commission that deaf people can use to have interpreters translate conversations for them. There are multiple providers through this program, and Yu uses Purple Communications to make calls with people who don’t know know sign language.

Yu said it’s important to be vigilant while traveling.

“There’s no one to give us information,” Yu said. “If you can’t hear anything, you have to make sure that you’re visually aware.”

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