Just because they are in a wheelchair does not mean you can not travel the world with dignity.
Creating trips for persons with special needs is a niche with untapped potential. Travelers with disabilities spend an average of $13.6 billion a year on travel, so working within the special needs niche is rewarding in every way.
The key difference for planning special needs excursion and tours is that persons with disabilities or physical limitations often request slower-paced groups, accessible transportation and accessible destinations. Here are a few tips from Special Needs Group (www.specialneedsgroup.com) and other special needs travel professionals for getting started:
Kristy Lacroix, of Wheelchair Escapes, recommends taking Accessibility Travel courses through the Travel Institute to learn the basics. "Joining SATH, the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, is a great next step," she says.
Focus on a specific needs group (e.g., wheelchair users, slow walkers, individuals with hearing impairments) to become an expert faster. Alana Mizowicki of Fun Cruises and Travel has been developing trips for slow walkers and wheelchair users since 2001 in partnership with the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. She says specialization leads to stronger partnerships and resources.
Experience and verify every aspect of the trip to ensure it is tailored to the abilities of your group. Lacroix plans customized travel for individuals and small groups and suggests taking photographs to review "the whole process." Issues such as entry ramps to buildings, accessible bathrooms, wheelchair vans and benches for slow walkers are all critical. If you cannot visit a destination, ask the right questions. For destinations, are sidewalks wheelchair-friendly? What are the requirements for service animals? For transportation, do vans have straps for securing wheelchairs? How many wheelchairs can be accommodated? For venues, are there entry ramps and elevators? What are the doorway widths? Are bathrooms accessible?
Don't assume other countries have the same accessibility standards as the United States. Some ports are not suitable for excursions, so warn your group they may not be going ashore at these ports or may experience limitations if they do.
Special Needs Group, the leading global provider of special needs equipment, works constantly with cruise lines to solve challenges, including what to do when a ship cannot dock port-side and tender transfers are required.
Build a reliable team
It takes teamwork to put all the pieces in place. According to Mizowicki, her team consists of the cruise line staff, her agency associates, the partnering foundation and service providers such as Special Needs Group. She also brings experts onboard for physical therapy, acupuncture and exercise classes. One aspect of special needs travel is the opportunity to help people explore new possibilities - going beyond the diagnosis of their disease to become the most they can be. That takes teamwork.
Team members can keep you prepared. Occasionally, travel agents or special needs groups underestimate the quantities of wheelchairs and oxygen required for a trip. Special Needs Group works with agents and planners to recommend different quantities of supplies to help ensure that the group has all of the special needs equipment each person will require for the duration of the trip. "We make sure no one runs out of oxygen or is without audio aides or a power chair when they need it," says Andrew Garnett, founder and CEO of Special Needs Group.
"Always expect and be prepared for the unexpected. On every trip I learn something new that helps me with my next group," adds Mizowicki.
"Everyone wants to travel," says Lacroix. "Just because they are in a wheelchair does not mean they cannot travel the world with dignity."