Planning a vacation when someone in your family has a disability presents challenges. Christi Oliver is more familiar with this than most. “We often travel with three or four generations of relatives, so all of our travel has to be appropriate and engaging for everyone, whether they’re 6 months old or 16, grandparents, sometimes great-grandparents – and everyone has different abilities,” she says.
Some in Oliver’s family have mobility impairments or significant medical conditions. Others are on the autism spectrum, have Down syndrome or sensory-processing or panic disorders. They travel with walkers, motorized wheelchairs, scooters, medical equipment and medication that needs to be refrigerated. Oliver herself is a manual wheelchair user with respiratory complications that require full-time oxygen use.
“And on top of that, we’re all really full of life and enthusiasm,” Oliver says, so not just any vacation experience will do. Oliver jumped in as the family-vacation architect, but the going wasn’t easy. “When I started planning trips for my own family years ago, I found that most travel planners weren’t equipped to answer the questions that I needed answered because they weren’t things that ‘typical’ families ask,” she says.
She also realized that plenty of other families weren’t getting the vacation-planning help they needed, and that this was keeping them from visiting destinations they wanted to visit. That is how Oliver found her calling.
Digging for Answers
Today, she works with Fairytale Journeys travel agency and plans trips of all kinds for people of all abilities. One of Oliver’s goals when she’s helping a family with disabilities is to eliminate stress, which she says comes from the many questions that arise when these families think about travel. Is this going to be wheelchair accessible? Will there be a cold place to store medication? Will there be a place where we can take a break from the stimulation? Are ASL interpretation or audio descriptive devices available?
“So, I dig for answers,” Oliver says. “I search for places where young ones with sensory-processing disorders can find a quiet corner in really crowded tourist destinations, or where someone can store a medication, or I try to find an accessible venue in a tourist destination that’s not accessible.”
To get the answers she needs, Oliver uses a three-pronged approach. She calls the location directly, but that’s just a start. “I will call the destination and ask them my questions,” she says, “but I find that they don’t always have the same view of accessibility that the guest does.”
That’s why she also researches the destination online, looking up as many reviews and photos as she can. “I will try to find specific information or specific photos that show me what I’m looking for,” she says.
Finally, if possible, she visits the spot herself or calls a contact in the area to ask them to visit and take photos and video for her.
Planning Do’s and Don’ts
She recommends that families planning trips on their own ask for help. If you are part of a community group of people with needs similar to yours, reach out and ask if anyone there has visited the destination you’re considering. Or find an online resource, such as a Facebook group or other group dedicated to people with a specific disability, or to people traveling with disabilities. Someone there might be able to answer your questions.
One mistake Oliver sees traveling families with disabilities make is to assume that more popular, mainstream attractions will be more accessible, while things that are a little off the beaten path will not. “That is not always the case,” she says. “Don’t automatically exclude something that sounds like it could be really exciting just because you think it might not be accessible. Always ask.” You can often find modifications that will make your dream experience possible.
In seeking out accessible travel experiences, Oliver and her family have been especially happy with Disney parks and resorts. “Everything that they do, that Disney brand is its own form of travel insurance,” she says. “I know I’m getting the best possible version of that type of experience.” Oliver has visited Disney theme parks more than 200 times, is a graduate of the Disney College of Knowledge and specializes in planning Disney vacations. Her extended family has a big reunion at Disney World every December.
Many of Disney’s most important accommodations are things you might not notice unless they affect you or someone you love. For instance, they keep their walkways free of potholes and dips. “If you are a manual wheelchair user, that makes a world of difference,” Oliver says. Wheelchair access is integrated into the park, while at other places it is sometimes separate. Parks have a regular schedule of ASL interpretation for attractions, parades and shows, and audio descriptive devices are readily available. They also have a virtual queue system for those with sensory and other issues who struggle with waiting in traditional lines.
“It’s little things like that that make it so that families like ours are able to experience an attraction as a group, and no one has to break off or go their own way,” Oliver says. “That changes everything for us when we’re traveling because everyone gets to experience everything together.”
Wherever you’re planning to go, Oliver advises travelers to keep their expectations reasonable. “There’s no such thing as a perfect vacation, and at some point, something’s not going to go to plan,” she says. Whether that’s something minor like forgetting a toothbrush or a major event like missing a flight, things will be easier if you try to relax and understand that most hiccups can be overcome. “More often than not, what ruins your vacation [when things go wrong] is the attitude,” she says.
And if you’d rather plan with a little help, consider working with a travel planner. “Many vacation specialists, myself included, offer all of our services free of charge,” Oliver says. She and other travel specialists have been trained to find amenities and discounts most travelers don’t know how to find – and to take the stress out of the planning process. “Having a professional hunt for the best prices and spend hours making sure you get the best experience, being able to sit back and relax and let your vacation start right away, is the true best part of having someone help you out,” Oliver says.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.