How to plan an accessible family road trip

Like many families, we love to travel, but unlike most families, we need to consider accessibility every step of the way for a successful family vacation. From restaurants to accommodations to attractions, we can only visit if we can access it.

My family of five consists of myself, my husband and three daughters. Our second daughter is in a wheelchair — to be more precise, a Powerful wheelchair user. This distinction is important because his wheelchair alone weighs over 350 pounds. And while it is sometimes possible – although still not easy or considered accessible – that a person in a manual wheelchair will occasionally run into a sidewalk or a single step, this is just not an option for our family. .

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted over 30 years ago, ensuring that all public spaces should be accessible to people with disabilities, but sadly that’s not the reality in many places.

At the top of the rock. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb
two people are sitting on horses against a cloudy sky
Ride a horse. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb

Many companies do not provide for accessibility. Some even believe that if their building existed before 1990 when the ADA was enacted, they don’t have to comply with the ADA. This is wrong, and companies that fail to adhere to ADA compliance are breaking the law. However, the only way to hold these companies accountable is for private citizens, usually people with disabilities, to sue them, which is often prohibitive and time consuming.

I am sharing this to help people without disabilities understand the burden of inaccessibility in our daily lives. For example, if we are going to a new restaurant, we have to call ahead to see if it is accessible. Then we need to explain what we mean by accessible and ask more questions: do you have even a step to get into your building? Is your bathroom large enough to accommodate a wheelchair? You might be surprised how often the answer is “no”.

As we continue to push for more accessibility, we always explore our beautiful world through travel to the best of our ability. Here are a few things I learned along the way when planning an accessible family road trip.

Accessible accommodation reservation

Finding accessible accommodation is usually what takes the most time and effort up front. If we are going to stay in a hotel or motel, we simply ask for an accessible room.

However, we generally like to stay in vacation rental properties, like Airbnb or VRBO residences, so we can have an entire house or apartment to ourselves. And while Airbnb has metrics for finding accessible residences, property owners often don’t understand what “accessible” actually means.

four people wearing helmets and goggles sit in mud-covered all-terrain vehicle
All Terrain. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb

We regularly see houses classified as “accessible” despite having entire stairs leading to each entry point. Or we see the reverse: a house with a flat, no-clearance entry point that is not listed as accessible. Therefore, until Airbnb and other travel sites take the necessary steps to ensure better accessibility, my advice is to carefully review the photos in the ad. Look at entry points and other access needs, like wider hallways or accessible bathrooms. Then follow up via email and be very specific about your access needs. I clarify that we do not need any steps to enter the house or apartment, and I usually ask for additional photos for insurance.

After our stay, I ask the host to make sure they list their home as accessible (if they haven’t already) and provide more specific photos of the accessibility features. It’s a small thing, but if I can make it a little easier for other families in need of access to book an accessible vacation rental, then so much the better.

three girls pose for a photo outside the gates of graceland, which feature musical notes and an elvis cutout
At the gates of Graceland. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb

Traveling with a wheelchair user takes more time: time to find out about access, find parking accessible to vans, load and unload, sometimes having to take another accessible entrance, wait until a company sets up a ramp, etc. I never plan a busy route in order to give us enough time to get from one place to another.

Listen to your children

Even though we strive to make activities accessible and to make the inaccessible accessible, there are still places and activities that our second daughter may not fully appreciate, but that our other children can enjoy. This past March, we spent a week in Hocking Hills, Ohio. One of the reasons we visited is that one of its popular sites, Ash Cave, is accessible.

It is rare to find a beautiful and lush outdoor space that is also wheelchair accessible. And there was another hike to Hocking Hills that was (for the most part) also accessible. However, most of the hikes were not wheelchair accessible. My second daughter agreed to be carried in a hiking backpack for a hike, but after that she did not want to be carried.

As parents, we want to give our child access to all the curiosities, but it is more important that we respect his autonomy and his desire. not be worn. We also think it’s important that our other girls experience things they want to see and do. So we take turns changing activities where one of us stays with our middle daughter, while the other parent takes the other two girls to an activity.

a mom and her three daughters take a selfie
The author and his three daughters. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb

Request access

It’s not always clear if accommodations can be made for specific activities, but it’s always worth asking. In Hocking Hills, we wanted to go horseback riding, but weren’t sure if a location had the appropriate accessible equipment. We called and found a welcoming and accommodating option. It turns out that my second daughter didn’t need any special equipment. The staff were patient and ready to resolve any issues with us so we could all enjoy an afternoon of riding.

Do your best and forgive the rest

I’m not planning a family vacation focused on activities our second daughter can’t do. At the same time, I don’t want to stop our other daughters from going through things just because their sister can’t. So we’re just doing our best.

My oldest daughter fell in love with roller skates last summer and the rest of our family also bought roller skates. My husband made a modified Segway for our middle daughter as recreational wheels, but it’s not the same.

On a family trip last summer, we brought our roller skates and our Segway, and spent a fair amount of time roller skating in Philadelphia. Our oldest daughter loved it, but our second daughter, not so much. The pendulum swings the other way as well — there are times when we do nothing because of lack of access, and there are times when we do things despite lack of access. Neither option is ideal, but we’re doing our best. And that’s really all you can do.

a family poses in front of the freedom bell
The Liberty Bell. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb
two people wearing shorts and roller skates sit in graffiti covered skate park at sunset
Roller skating in Philly. | Photo courtesy of Amy Webb

Useful Resources

Some of these resources I have found online and others have been recommended to me. I hope you find them as useful as I am.

  • Curb Free with Cory Lee: Cory Lee is an accessible travel writer. I love following him on Instagram for specific travel tips, like how to book an accessible cab in NYC. I record his messages for places I want to travel with my family.
  • Wheelmap: An online map where you can search, find and mark wheelchair accessible places.
  • Accessible Vacation Getaways: A multi-award winning, family-run, accessible travel website. There are over 50 accessibility search options to help travelers with disabilities.
  • Wheelchair Travel: A Guide to Wheelchair Accessible Destinations Around the World.
  • AccessNow: An online app and map for finding, reviewing and sharing accessible places around the world.

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