Multiple sclerosis has not stopped Mary Zee from fishing for piranhas in the Amazon or riding an elephant in the Himalayas. "Being disabled just means you have to plan ahead," says the 51-year-old Media (Pa.) travel writer.
With help from a handful of tour operators and travel agents, handicapped people can explore parts of the world that once seemed out of reach. The Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped, an advocacy group in New York, estimates there are 36 million such travelers in the U.S. Yet few in the industry court disabled customers, says Carol Randall of Access-Able Travel Source in Denver.
Indeed, while facilities have generally improved since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, not every hotel, airline, or restaurant is up to snuff. And, of course, standards vary greatly overseas.
SNAFUS. Two Massachusetts agencies, AccessAbility Travel in Cambridge and Access First Travel in Malden, send representatives to inspect destinations around the world so they can help disabled travelers meet their needs--whether it's wheelchair-accessible cruise ships or guides who understand sign language. Their knowledge of the vehicles, hotels, and even the terrain at various destinations can prevent unforeseen snafus. Just because a hotel has a handicapped symbol in a travel guide doesn't mean it's fully wheelchair accessible. "There could be three stairs to get into the lobby and no wheel-in showers," says Joe Regan, owner of Access First.
Although many disabled travelers complain of limited access on mainstream packaged tours, Princess Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises are particularly good. These lines have as many as 30 wheelchair accessible cabins on larger ships. (The rates are the same as for standard cabins.) Furthermore, they allow guide dogs, and make flashing lights available to signal incoming calls and visitors at the door. But once travelers arrive in ports of call, they're on their own. Lift vans are not provided for shore trips, so tourists must make and pay for their own arrangements.
Accessible Journeys in Ridley Park, Pa., and Flying Wheels in Owatonna, Minn., are among the outfits that put together tours to such faraway places as Australia, Kenya, Norway, and Switzerland--all aimed at physically-impaired people and their companions. They might arrange for porters to carry clients up the steps at the Taj Mahal or provide canvas slings to lower disabled travelers into submarines in the Caribbean.
For travel closer to home, Access Tours in Jackson, Wyo., is a nonprofit organization that plans nature-oriented trips for the disabled in the Western states. Ten-day vacations costing $1,500 to $1,700 in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon are typical offerings.
WORK-STUDY. Disabled people who are interested in foreign exchange programs can call Mobility International USA in Eugene, Ore. (541 343-1284). This nonprofit group serves as a clearinghouse for information on work-study opportunities in other countries. The organization also sponsors trips such as a three-week sojourn to Mexico, where travelers can meet with disability activists while soaking up local culture. As part of a $40 membership fee, Mobility International will share information from a database on how accommodating certain destinations are throughout the world.
Whether a disabled traveler is seeking adventure, learning, or rest and relaxation, it can be achieved. Zee believes some people with disabilities stay home out of fear that they won't be accommodated. "It's a shame," she says. Having a physical impairment these days doesn't mean having to miss the boat.