Suzanne Bair is a disabled multi-genre writer, photographer, and community advocate. She is the founder and lead writer of Accessible Family Travel, an online resource and accessible travel blog. Her previous work can be seen in Tiny Tim Literary Review, Bellingham Alive!, North Sound Life, and North End Metro magazines encompassing a variety of literary, editorial, and photography content. Suzanne has also been a volunteer and community advocate working with local school districts, and national organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YMCA, Head Start/Ecap, and the Center for Independence, focusing on education and disability inclusion for over 20 years.
What made you start Accessible Family Travel?
I love to travel. Growing up in a military family, it’s part of your blood. Over the years, however, my family and I started having difficulty traveling. We have different health conditions ranging from mild to chronic, and disabling, which makes planning a trip, or even a simple gathering, difficult. While there has been a surge of information from wheelchair travelers about traveling with a disability, it’s still a challenge to find accessible travel information for those with a mental health condition, autism, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic issues. I wanted to create a platform for travelers with disabilities, both visible and invisible, who were searching for a broader range of accessible travel information.
The disabled community is a powerful model for crowd-sourcing information. We often rely on each other to find relevant information for topics related to disability, including travel. With mainstream media and advertising often leaving us behind, it is travelers with disabilities who provide for each other the most helpful and accurate accessible travel information. Accessible Family Travel curates and creates comprehensive accessibility information and resources related to transportation, accommodations, activities, adaptive technology, and more. We also invite other accessible travel bloggers to share their personal experiences to help other travelers gain confidence, resulting in more opportunities for successful and enjoyable travel.
What is accessibility? What does accessible travel mean?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Accessibility means different things depending on the person and the need. For example, think about mobility impairments. For one wheelchair user, accessibility in a hotel may mean step-free access throughout the hotel, a roll-in shower, accessible toilet, and a lift for the pool. But for a different wheelchair user, it may also mean a lower or raised bed, a lift to get in and out of bed, or something else altogether. As a non-wheelchair user with mobility impairment, I usually don’t require more than step-free access and a central location close to accessible transportation, at this time. (Occasionally, I will use an ADA room with a tub.) Step-free may not seem like much of an accommodation, but it can prevent people like me from enjoying travel the way I would like. Hotels may have their facilities, meeting rooms, dining and other service areas on different floors, accessible only by stairs, thereby making them inaccessible without elevators or other step-free access.
Can you give us an example of how accessible travel differs from your travel experiences?
During tours and activities, my friends who use wheelchairs have different needs than I do. For example, my friend Shawn, who uses an electric wheelchair, can travel long distances quickly. I, on the other hand, can’t walk as far, or nearly as fast. Imagine us crossing the street together! Unless he is rolling companionably beside me, he can get through an intersection nearly three times as fast as I do.
I need shorter tours or activities than Shawn does, ones with breaks or resting places, and more time to get from one activity to another. I also need to limit the number of activities I do in a day. Shawn can go longer distances and periods without pausing or resting; however, I can access places he cannot, such as buildings with transition steps or limited stairs or doorways too narrow for his wheelchair. While we share some needs, like step or barrier-free access, some needs are unique to each of us and require different accommodations. Travelers with disabilities other than mobility impairments may require completely different accommodations.
What are some of the biggest barriers you face traveling with a disability?
Like most disabled travelers, finding necessary accessibility information is the biggest hurdle. I’m relatively young (mid-thirties) and because I rarely use a mobility device (I occasionally use a cane or electric scooter for longer, single venue activities) my disability is usually invisible at first. I am often overlooked as needing mobility accommodations, even when I ask. For example, I may request a slower travel pace or step-free access during a tour, but many tours run without the requested accommodations, forcing me to painfully keep up, skip parts, or abandon the activity altogether. If I ask for an elevator, I am sometimes pointed towards the stairs or told the elevators are only for wheelchair users, especially if the only access is a freight elevator. When I do use the elevator or alternative route, I am frequently separated from my group, missing part of the tour or activity and the inclusivity of a group atmosphere.
What about transportation?
Transportation difficulties arise as well. I often struggle with platform gaps and told that bridge plates or other assistance are for wheelchair users only. I am reluctant to ask for someone’s seat on a crowded bus or train because I am not immediately recognized as disabled. Standing for long periods causes difficulties with balance, and I have little stamina. These issues, and the pain I experience, can force me to forgo public transportation during peak times when traveling between accessible transportation stops. At airports, I frequently receive uncomfortable glares from fellow passengers or hear disparaging remarks when I request wheelchair assistance throughout the terminal and preboarding. Some people assume I am “faking it” in an attempt to receive an unfair advantage. They do not “see” my disability; therefore, for them it doesn’t exist. This also happens when I use my accessible parking placard.
What other difficulties do people with invisible disabilities face when they travel?
Outside of the disabled community, people often think of disabilities in terms of what they can see. That is, if a person has a disability, they use a wheelchair, walker, white cane, or some other assistive device, or show some visual cue they have disabilities. However, according to Invisibledisabilities.org, in “the 1994-1995 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) found that 26 million Americans (almost 1 in 10) have a severe disability, while only 1.8 million used a wheelchair and 5.2 million used a cane, crutches or walker (Americans with Disabilities 94-95). In other words, 74% of Americans who live with a severe disability do not use such devices. Therefore, a disability cannot be determined solely by whether or not a person uses assistive equipment. Unfortunately, people often judge others by what they see and conclude a person can or cannot do something by the way they look. This attitude can be equally frustrating for those who may appear unable but are perfectly capable, as well as those who seem able, but are not.”
The reality is there are far more invisible disabilities than visible. It’s estimated that only around 20 percent of disabilities are visible. Over the last few years, wheelchair users have shared helpful information about accessible travel. As a traveler with mostly invisible disabilities, I realized there was not much out there for non-wheelchair users or people with chronic medical conditions. Many times people with invisible disabilities are overlooked and invest much time time asking and answering questions about accommodations, often having to justify their requests more than those with visible disabilities do.
What kinds of activities do people with disabilities enjoy while traveling?
To me, this always seems like a silly question. The answer is, the same things as non-disabled people! People with disabilities enjoy going to movies and shows, concerts and plays, visiting museums, watching spectator sports, shopping, dining out, participating in sports and activities, etc. We travel for religious reasons, to visit our families, to explore somewhere new. Our interests, tastes, and preferences are just as varied.
What is one common, but perhaps, strange misconception able-bodied people have about people with disabilities when they travel?
One is that people with disabilities don’t like the same kinds of things able-bodied people do. Another is that people with disabilities don’t drink alcohol. Sometimes it feels like people with disabilities are infantilized, or that people assume those of legal drinking age are on medications and not allowed to drink. I find this funny because my disability doesn’t impair my ability to love a good glass of wine or try a new beer while out with my friends. I love visiting breweries, wineries, distilleries, and cool pubs. With the surge in new microbreweries and wineries, most are “new constructions,” making them fully accessible because of contemporary building codes. They also may have great bands or other live music. Large estates can still present some access issues for wheelchairs. But although the grounds may not be fully accessible, tasting rooms and other areas are usually new and updated for access. Many microbreweries, wineries, and distilleries also offer accessible tours, unless they have raised viewing platforms.
What words advice would you give someone with disabilities or chronic health issues who would like to travel but hasn’t because of accessibility?
When I talk to disability groups about accessible travel, I remind people that they all come from different places: from small town, large cities, and sometimes from the middle of nowhere. I point this out because people with disabilities live everywhere around the world. They live there. They go to school there. They go shopping there. They go from place to place. Once place may have better accessibility than another with better transportation, more accessible venues, or places to stay, etc. but if people with disabilities can live there, you can travel there. Traveling with a disability or chronic health issue is different than traveling as an abled bodied person, there is no doubt about it. It requires a lot more planning and patience, a bit of compromise, and a decent sense of humor, but creating those memories will be well worth it.
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