Disabilities do not have to make travel impossible. Most high-income nations have implemented strict requirements for accessibility by law in recent decades, and the US legislation on that topic even served as a model for a UN agreement. That being said, some places – whether through carelessness or lack of resources or historical restrictions – are rather hard to access for people with some disabilities. Common problems include sidewalks marred with potholes and or blocked by poles protruding at odd angles, which make walking a challenge even for the healthy and greatly inhibit mobility in a wheelchair, insufficient or non-existent public transit infrastructure, unthoughtful currency design, and needlessly noisy restaurants.
Blind and visually impaired
In most parts of the world, airports and train stations are generally manageable places for a blind or visually impaired person with reasonable mobility skills, except for the navigation problems caused by fast-moving crowds. Plan extra time to get from one place to the other, and let the teeming hordes pass you by. For airport security, you'll need to know what you've put on the scanner to be X-rayed, and how to describe it when it comes out the other end. If they have a question about some of your hand luggage, then you won't be allowed to touch it to confirm that it's yours before they've double-checked it. So if a security officer vaguely asks someone in your direction, "Is this yours?", be ready to say that you brought a black wool jacket, a MacBook Air laptop, a black leather briefcase, and an iPhone in a silicone rubber case.
The quality of bus service varies much more, and your next stop after the plane or train may be the local bus or a hotel shuttle bus. Some cities have speaking buses, accessible apps that you can download to plan your route, and braille labels on the stop buttons. In other places, you have to rely on the driver to tell you what bus you're getting on, which direction it's going, and when it's your stop.
If you have some vision, then mark your luggage in a way that will let you identify it. There won't be too many people with their suitcases covered from edge to edge in a large X or other shape made with neon pink duct tape. If you need something that doesn't rely on vision, then consider a specialized electronic speaking device or a tactile pattern, perhaps made of knots in thin rope very securely wrapped around the handle.
Once you're there
There are a few hotels that specialize in blind and visually impaired guests. These hotels provide high-contrast features, talking elevator controls, room keys that make it easy to tell which end goes in first, and otherwise understand what makes your life simpler. However, the odds are that you'll be arriving at a typical hotel. In that case, tell the hotel about any requests you have when you make your reservation. Whenever possible, speak to the local hotel staff about their facility before reserving your room, rather than relying on a central call center. When you arrive, the check-in process will likely be the same as any other transaction, right down to the detail of needing to explain to the clerk how to position your signature card or asking him to use the top edge of your credit card to indicate the bottom edge of the signature line. Ask someone to walk you to your room, at least the first time, so that you can orient yourself, check for nearly invisible glass doors and other obstacles along your route, and also figure out the room key. Some hotels deliver a newspaper to each room in the morning. This tripping hazard can usually be stopped or held at the front desk for you upon request.
If you use any specialized computer tools, such as a screen reader or software for zooming, then bring your own laptop, braille notetaker, or other electronic devices. You almost certainly won't find what you want in an internet café. Ask hotel staff to point out where the electrical outlets and sockets for internet cables are located in the room.
If you're traveling for work, you may not have time to do much else. But if you are on holiday or otherwise expect to have some time, then consider your options. Ask the hotel staff for help finding your preferred form of transportation, as well as for general advice. If you're interested in your destination, try signing up for a guided tour, so that you can hear the tour guide describe the history and culture. Large history and art museums sometimes hold special hands-on tours for blind and visually impaired people. A gift shop that sells scale models of famous local buildings and monuments may let you touch them, so you can better understand the places you've just visited.
You may also be able to get useful advice about your destination from the local blindness institute at your destination.
In general, travel should be planned for well in advance when traveling internationally with a guide dog. As dogs can carry diseases, special testing, vaccination and paperwork is required in many countries, especially island countries. Countries with such requirements include the UK and Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The US state of Hawaii has very similar requirements, which are more strict than those in use on the US mainland.
Many countries allow guide dogs where dogs are not normally allowed (e.g., inside a restaurant, on public transit), while most developing countries don't have laws permitting guide dogs in public places, and locals may not distinguish the difference between pet dogs and guide dogs, causing troubles when entering places where pet dogs are forbidden.
Deaf and hard of hearing
Travellers who are deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) may benefit from some specific features, such as lights on fire alarms. If you can't hear fire alarms, then always tell the hotel staff about your hearing situation when you check in.
Almost all restaurants, especially in areas with significant international travel, can take orders from diners who merely point at what they want on the menu. An increasing number of casual restaurants allow ordering online for takeout or delivery, which reduces the risk of miscommunication.
A few restaurants and stores have employees that use sign language. If you're traveling near a large school for deaf and HOH students, you are likely to find more establishments that are accustomed to patrons who can't hear well. For example, if you're near Washington, D.C., then it may be worth a trip across town to its Near Northeast district, to be near the businesses that cater to students and staff from the famous Gallaudet University.
Noise is a problem in many restaurants, and it can affect everyone. Most restaurants will do their best to accommodate people who want to be able to hold a conversation, so it's worth asking if a quiet table is available. The makers of the SoundPrint app, which aims to crowd-source noise ratings for American restaurants, say that American Chinese and Indian restaurants tend to be less noisy than other types of restaurants in the US.
Infrastructure for the mobility impaired vary widely. When considering destinations, looking at cities that have hosted the Olympics (and Paralympics) is a good starting point. Wheelchair ramps and accessibility are part of the preparation. Developed countries tend to have better infrastructure to support travellers with reduced mobility than developing countries. However, some public transit systems like the Paris Metro have poor accessible design, despite serving the capital of one of the wealthiest countries on Earth. Newly constructed infrastructure tends to keep accessibility in mind during the design phase while older infrastructure often do not.
In many countries some categories of establishments, including most public services, are required to be accessible by wheelchair. Even so, it may be good to call in advance, as the door to use may be a locked back door, or it may be temporarily blocked by roadworks.
The permits used for getting to use dedicated parking are partly standardised; a tag from a member country of the International Transport Forum should be valid in nearly all of Europe and North America and in a dozen countries elsewhere under the reciprocal recognition of parking badges resolution.
Travellers with autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome) often feel overwhelmed by noise and general "hustle and bustle". Airports and trains often have a lot of noise. A pair of noise-cancelling headphone can muffle the sound, while a fidget spinner can act as a distraction. Some airports have sensory areas or quiet rooms to provide a calming environment. Inquire ahead of time if a hotel offers autism-friendly rooms, which reduces the anxiety of travellers who are extra sensitive to the changes of the new surrounding while travelling.
Travellers with autism are often vulnerable to scams, as they can find it more difficult to tell when someone is lying to them. Having a solid understanding of typical local crimes and scams, and practising how to respond to strangers may help with countering scams. The basic point is that you in this context should ignore most strangers who claim to need help, as well as those who offer help you did not look for. If somebody needs help, there are locals who are better equipped to provide it.
Keep the following in mind when travelling with or meeting a fellow traveller who happens to be disabled.
- If you need to interact with a person with disabilities, then speak directly to that person, in the same manner that you would speak to any other stranger whom you would like to make a favorable impression on. For example, do not ask a blind man's children what he would like to do; ask him directly.
- Do not touch people with disabilities, or any of their equipment or other belongings, without getting their permission first. "May I help you with that?" is more polite than grabbing their things. Be prepared to have your offer of help declined.
- People all have varied interests, and once practicalities have been taken care of, a person's disability is seldom the most important thing in their life. Someone in a wheelchair may prefer to spend the day at a bird sanctuary rather than attend a wheelchair race, and a blind person might prefer discussing the local culture and history of a town rather than the absence of braille on the museum exhibits.
- Don't ask how or when they became disabled. They're probably bored with telling that story already. Do ask the same things that you would ask any non-disabled person, which includes small talk about your adventures with fellow travellers and requests for advice about local sights and restaurants from people who are familiar with your destination.
- Don't make jokes or say clever things. They have already heard all of them, from "Don't run over me in that wheelchair" to "I sure wish I could board the plane first", hundreds of times.
- There is no need to talk loudly or slowly to blind people. They can hear you well enough.
- Do not pet, feed or otherwise distract a guide dog without first asking the owner's permission.
- Though ignorance, laziness and arrogance probably could be classified as disabilities, they are self-inflicted and do not qualify one to occupy a disabled parking space. These parking spaces are reserved to make it easier for someone in a wheelchair, or who uses crutches or a cane, to enter and exit a vehicle.
- At the same time, if you see someone walking from a disabled space alone with no apparent difficulty, don't jump to the conclusion that the person is not qualified to occupy the space. Disabled parking permits are often available to many people who don't use wheelchairs, but have other conditions that seriously limit their mobility (such as a leg amputation, certain cardiac or respiratory conditions, or chronic severe pain). The driver may also be going inside to pick up the person who is entitled to use the space, and assist that person in entering the vehicle.
- Most people rarely give a second thought to toilets because they are always there and easy to use, but for a person with mobility limitations, using a standard toilet can be very difficult or even impossible. Check on toilet facilities before planning an outing.
Wheelmap has information about wheelchair-accessible places in many countries. The information is rather basic with 3 levels: All rooms accessible, some rooms accessible, not accessible.
Lonely Planet created a free resource for finding accessibility information by country called Accessible Travel Online Resources. The Accessible Travel Forum is a website for sharing information among travelers with disabilities.
In Canada, legislation that regulates federal accessibility standards was passed in 2019, with varying grace periods. The regulation includes interprovincial bus routes, train service and airlines. For Ontario, the building codes, and rules for transportation and service providers to improve accessibility, will be fully enforced by 2025.
European Union / Eurozone
The Euro banknotes and coins are intentionally designed to be easily recognizable by touch. While the ten cent coin is slightly smaller than the five cent coin, it is easily distinguished by its ridge. Similarly the fifty cent coin while bigger than the one Euro coin has a different ridge as well. Also, banknotes increase in size as the denomination increases. The European Union also tries to set common accessibility standards, especially in new construction and public transit. Most bus operators and many train operators should be able to accommodate people in wheelchairs, though more rural stations may lack elevators and legacy platforms may not have the right height for current rolling stock.
General awareness of accessibility issues is quite high, although in practice there are still many problems. Most public facilities and many private ones have arrangements for people with wheelchair or hearing aids. Anyhow it is a good idea to call in advance to check any special arrangements (such as entry by a locked back door) and have company that can help with unexpected problems.
Toilets designed for use with wheelchair are common where there is more than one toilet. Public buildings and modern shopping centres should be fairly safe bets. Bus and railway stations also used to be, but since the 2000s they have all too often been closed or repurposed, even in big towns.
Dog guides are accepted also in e.g. shops, where dogs in general are not allowed. Many traffic lights have audible signals. On buses there is usually a reserved seat behind the driver, but in practice that seat may not have space for the dog but in the aisle. Ask the driver (any fellow passenger can help with translation, if needed). Dog guides and assistance dogs generally travel for free, also on the railways, where you should include them on your ticket.
Where finding a parking lot may be hard, there are often parking space reserved for people with disabilities. There is a special permit to use these parking lots. Foreign permits are recognized, given they have the international symbol.
The railways have cars accessible with wheelchair on most routes; sleeper cars each have one cabin for a person with disabilities and his or her assistant. Assistance can be ordered in advance, from the platform to your seat; conductors will help you on the train itself. If you have a personal assistant (any adult) travelling with you, he or she gets a free ticket, provided you are in wheelchair or have an accepted certificate. Call ☏ 0800-166-888 (non-geographic number) for details.
Local buses in e.g. Turku are equipped for wheelchair access (and using the buses is free, also for a person assisting).
Taxis usually charge extra if you have a wheelchair or need significant assistance. On the other hand, the elderly and people with disabilities belong to their most important customer groups, so most drivers will be very helpful and professional.
The euro notes and coins are made to be easily distinguished one from another without seeing.
Metsähallitus, responsible for the national parks, gives information on accessibility for each destination, many of which have trails accessible by assisted or motorized wheelchair. The exhibitions at visitor centres are usually accessible.
There are specific regional SMS emergency numbers for those that cannot communicate by voice. These are not posted on the Internet. Enquiries to ☏.
- ACCESSIBLE JAPAN offers information for tourists with disabilities and other mobility issues with sections including general information, a database of accessible hotels, tourist attraction reviews, equipment rentals and more. They have also published a tour guide book for Tokyo, Accessible Japan's Tokyo: All you need to know about traveling to Tokyo with a disability.
- HEART BARRIER gathers a database of wheelchair-accessible restaurants and shops all around Japan. They include details like slope width and slope, which are not included in Wheelmap.
See also Disabled travel in South Africa
- South African National Council for the Blind, 514 White Street, Bailey's Muckleneuk, Pretoria, ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org.
- South African Guide Dogs Association, 126 Wroxham Road, Rietfontein, Sandton, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com.
Accessibility in the UK is generally good.
Deliberate discrimination against individuals with disabilities is prohibited in law, with many popular destinations and venues having gone considerably beyond the 'reasonable' adjustments required.
- Royal National Institute of the Blind, London, ☏ .
While the U.S. for the most part is very good at accommodating disabled travelers, one glaring exception is money for blind travelers. While coins can be distinguished relatively easily by the blind, the physical sizes of the coins do not consistently relate to the value of the coin. Most notably, the dime (10 cents) is physically the smallest coin. The situation for paper currency (notes) is even worse for the blind. All denominations are the same physical size (unlike the euro, in which the notes increase in physical size as the denomination increases), and there are no tactile features that enable blind people to readily distinguish different denominations by feel. A redesign of each U.S. note that would include a tactile feature to better accommodate people who identify currency by touch has been delayed until 2021 at the earliest. In the meantime, the American Foundation for the Blind has published a guide detailing alternative ways to identify currency.
- National Federation of the Blind, Baltimore, MD, ☏ .
- American Council of the Blind, Washington D.C., ☏ .