Three key tips for traveling with a child with a disability
By Althea Ioakimidis
My husband looks at me from across the table and says, “We should probably book our tickets to Greece.”
I give him a sarcastic look, roll my eyes and say, “Pfft! Not happening!”
I was immediately overwhelmed by the magnitude of what would be required to get my seven-year-old with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair to and from Greece.
Remember when travel was easy? You would pack your bag with a towel, a bottle of sunscreen and a good book…simple. Then, one day, this precious being enters your life, and they slow everything down–way down. They will teach you so many things. You will grow and become part of a village and an elite parenting team. You’re playing varsity now.
You will forever wonder about their future. You will wonder about your future. The thoughts are just massive.
Travel? Well, now, that’s just crazy.
But then it happens.
Tickets purchased, AirBnB booked, checklist a mile long– we had enough Thick-It packed to thicken the entire Aegean Sea. I had spent months thinking about pureed food, toileting, ankle-foot orthoses, wheelchairs, medications…the list was endless. Now, the day had finally come. Our family was headed for Greece!
There will be opportunities for travel and adventure if you have a child with a disability. Travel is different for everyone; the spectrum of abilities varies, and so do comfort levels. But despite the potential challenges, I hope that you will consider the possibility of traveling, and maybe even pick up some useful tips along the way.
Here are the three key things to know when traveling with a child with a disability.
Step One: Set Realistic Expectations and Be Flexible
We have traveled internationally and domestically with our daughter. I remember one of our earliest family getaways, a road trip to Washington, D.C. The five of us packed our non-accessible car to the brim and headed for the nation’s capital.
At our first stop, the Lincoln Memorial, we quickly discovered the elevator was broken, which meant that my little one (who uses a wheelchair) wouldn’t be able to access the whole site. So, my husband and I took turns keeping her company and exploring the memorial with our older children.
When you travel, not everything will go perfectly. And, let’s face it, some things are just not going to be as accessible as they should be. Don’t get hung up on it. There will be better times to advocate for your child, but right now, you’re on holiday. This moment will not ruin your child’s experience or your entire vacation.
During the rest of our time in D.C., we visited plenty of other places that were fully accessible for her, and were able to create lasting memories.
Step Two: Borrow What You Can and Think Creatively
Sometimes, with travel, you just need to wing it. One concern we have when traveling by plane is relinquishing the care of my daughter’s highly necessary (and very expensive) wheelchair to the airline. If it were to get misplaced or broken, it would be a disaster.
So, before venturing to Greece, we took this into consideration and decided to borrow a hand-me-down chair. Was it a perfect match for her needs? No, but it allowed for us to transport her safely, and we weren’t paranoid about it getting lost or broken in transit. In other words, leave your Mercedes of wheelchairs at home. Bring an old chair, or find something that will work for your child for a short amount of time.
You may also need to get creative about bath time. We have found that a plastic child-sized booster seat like this works great in the bath and can also double as a beach chair. It’s plastic, so it can get wet, and is compact enough to fit in a suitcase or the back of a car. As my daughter has grown, we have started using this option instead.
Step Three: Bring Reinforcements
We are fortunate to have a small village that cares for our daughter. Between loving family members and committed personal care assistants (PCAs) we have been able to find some respite when needed.
In 2019, we took one of our beloved PCAs with us to Greece. This trip was by far my favorite, because having that extra set of hands was a lifesaver. It allowed for us to relax and enjoy our vacation, all while traveling like a well-oiled and efficient machine. If you’re considering bringing a PCA on vacation with you, look for someone who will be excited to travel with you and fits in well with your family dynamic.
To sum up, the best way to travel with a child with a disability is to prepare, but also, be prepared to be unprepared. I know that list is daunting and the “what-ifs” are scary. Start small, and don’t be afraid to talk with people or ask for help. While you may have to leave that simple beach bag for easy travel behind, the memories you will create with your loved ones will fill a much larger and more meaningful bag.