Travelling with Disabilities: How Far We’ve Come and Where We Go from Here

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Our writer shares her family’s experience, plus tips for travellers with autism, mobility issues, dementia and mental illness.

The security line at Calgary International Airport inched forward. 

“I don’t like waiting in lines!” my son, then six, declared, anxiously clutching my hand. Two minutes later, he collapsed onto the floor, sobbing, and refused to budge. Startled travellers stared at us. Abashed, my husband and I wondered why we even bothered to leave home in the first place – after all, 87 percent of families like ours, with a child on the autism spectrum, don’t travel at all.

In the seven years since, autism travel has become easier for our family. We’ve learned how to prepare our son for travel days, and we give him tools, like fidget toys, to ease his anxiety in long lines.

Disability inclusion has improved across the travel landscape in general: For years the needs of those with mobility, sensory, cognitive or mental health challenges were mostly overlooked, but more and more, the 6 million Canadians who identify as having a disability are finding it less daunting to travel in Canada and abroad.

Related: How One Woman Travels the Planet Using Google Street View

August 18, 2021
Two cabins nestled in trees with a little road in front of them and lake and hills in the background
Autism‑sensitive cabins at Gros Morne National Park.   Photo: Sheldon Stone - @Parks Canada - Gros Morne National Park

How far we’ve come

Many popular destinations have started to make accommodations for travellers with disabilities. Disneyland, for example, offers quiet zones to unwind in, portable tactile map books and assistive listening systems. Parks Canada provides autism‑sensitive cabins at Gros Morne National Park, as well as wheelchair‑accessible accommodations, campsites, trails and beaches at parks across the country. Royal Caribbean ships have accessible staterooms and excursions, allow service dogs onboard and the company provides autism training to staff who work in child and youth programming. Meanwhile, Mesa, Arizona, became the world’s first destination to cater to travellers with developmental disabilities when more than 50 businesses, including hotels, attractions and city parks, underwent autism certification in 2019.

Tova Sherman, CEO of reachAbility, a Nova Scotia‑based organization that helps people who face barriers to inclusion with employment, community and now travel, says this groundswell in inclusion is happening thanks to a change in attitude toward travellers with disabilities. “The paradigm of disability is shifting to where we want to include people with disability – not avoid them,” she says.

Spurring this change is what Sherman calls the “monetization of disability.” Basically, the industry has realized it can tap into a market that makes up a quarter of all travellers and generates billions in annual spending – if it makes accommodations. In Canada, this is backed up by legislation: when the Accessible Canada Act passed in 2019, the country committed to becoming barrier‑free by 2040.

Related: A Yearning for Faraway Places Can Feel a Lot Like Homesickness

Three women of colour – one with a cane, one in a wheelchair and one walking unaided – walk on a sidewalk in front of an orange wall
   Photo: Chona Kasinger - Disabled and Here

Where we go from here

Sonja Gaudet, a regional accessibility specialist for the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA) in B.C., consults with hotels, wineries and outdoor experiences to suggest changes that work for everyone (not just disabled travellers), such as lower beds in hotel rooms and accessible portable toilets along pathways. As Gaudet says, everyone likes larger toilet stalls, not just people in wheelchairs like herself. “Creating environments that work for everyone regardless of age, size, gender, culture and ability, makes for a much more inclusive experience,” she says.

Gaudet and Sherman point to one simple change that could make a big difference in accessible travel: A willingness to try. Businesses need to communicate their readiness to accommodate all travellers, whether that means turning down the volume on background music, switching guests to a room on the ground floor, offering an alternate check‑in time that’s quieter or having a pen light and large‑print menu available. 

Expert tips for travelling with autism, mobility issues, dementia and mental illness

The silhouette of a father and child standing in front of a blue jellyfish tank at Ripley's Aquarium
A parent and child looking out the window at an airport
   Photo: Ripley's Aquarium of Canada
    Photo: Ivan Lapenkov

Autism travel tips

Many children and adults with autism process sensory input differently, which can make the break from routine – and the chaotic environments that come with travel – more challenging. 

“Families with children who have autism are nervous to travel,” says Angela Faminoff, a Victoria‑based autism travel agent who helps families with a child on the spectrum plan a successful holiday.

She advises families to practice a dry‑run airport visit with an organization such as the Canucks Autism Network, so they know what to expect on departure day. Other autism travel tips include creating a visual itinerary that shows the child what to expect and travelling with sensory tools like a weighted lap pad or anything that will help them cope in an unfamiliar environment. 

Choosing the right destination is also critical, says Faminoff. AutismTravel.com lists destinations, resorts and attractions that have undergone autism certification, such as Beaches Resorts in the Caribbean and Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto.

A man in a wheelchair having an outdoor drink at a stone table with two friends.
   Photo: Marcus Aurelius (Pexels)

Mobility travel tips

Travellers with mobility challenges aren’t just the people you see in wheelchairs. They might use a cane or a walker or need extra time to stop and rest while making their way from one gate to another in the airport. 

Factor in extra time on travel days and call ahead to restaurants and hotels to find out just how accessible things are, says Gaudet. On the airplane, make sure the attendant knows there’s an onboard travel wheelchair. 

Connect with local organizations, such as CRIS Adaptive Adventures in Kelowna, that offer adaptive equipment and support for activities like cycling, paddling or skiing. There are also accessible travel tours that take care of the planning. Gaudet recommends Soulfly Experiences, a company that creates inclusive trips in the Yukon, the Okanagan Valley and on Vancouver Island.

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A woman with white hair facing away from the camera reading a newspaper in an airport
   Photo: Martin Péchy

Dementia travel tips

Dementia affects cognition, memory and behaviour, and in some cases balance, mobility and vision as the disease progresses. But many Canadians with dementia still live independently and work – and they want to travel.   

“People need to know what they're getting into [before they travel with dementia],” says Linda Garcia with International Dementia Air Travel, a group advocating to make airports more inclusive to folks with dementia. “Even if you know how to handle an airport, if you have cognitive issues, it starts taxing your brain and you get confused.”

It’s important to plan ahead, book direct flights where possible and allot ample time to navigate the airport or a new city. Let the flight attendant know that you or someone you’re travelling with has dementia, so any behaviours won’t be misinterpreted. 

Dean Henderson with the Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County recommends travelling with items that are meaningful and grounding, such as a favourite playlist to combat excess noise. On arrival at the destination (a familiar city or town might be a better choice than travelling abroad with dementia), rest up before jumping into activities and be sure to add in some extra days to regroup. 

A person is seen in silhouette in the distance standing in an airport; the windows are bright but everything else is in darkness
   Photo: Ilya Ilford

Mental illness travel tips

One in five Canadians will have a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime, and it can make travel more challenging.

“Travel creates unpredictability and uncontrollability and then stress goes up,” says Keith Dobson, a professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. “This is true with anxiety, depression, and most mental health conditions.”

Travellers with mental health concerns who choose to take a trip should figure out what accommodations they need to make it successful, such as travelling with a friend or family member who understands the condition, says Dobson. And be sure to bring an ample supply of medication, along with support materials like meditation apps or sleep stories. Not getting enough sleep can be a huge trigger, so consider local travel vs. crossing multiple time zones and facing the associated jet lag.

And how to minimize any anxiety around flying? Dobson says to plan ahead if this is a problem by bringing medication, or noise cancelling headphones and an eye shade to reduce stimulation.

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This list is by no means exhaustive (there are more than 200 mental illnesses alone). So, we recommend turning to Google, social media or a person you trust to find the resources that make the most sense to you. From Triple Cripples, a blog supporting disabled POC, to this New York Times article on flying while blind, there are many resources available to help folks with disabilities travel the world.