How to Travel with Invisible Disabilities


September 7, 2023

Travel with Invisible Disabilities

Traveling with an invisible disability can be a challenge. The Invisible Disabilities Association defines an invisible disability as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” Such disabilities can include, but aren’t limited to, blindness, hearing loss, autism or epilepsy.

According to the Open Doors Association’s 2020 Market Study, more than two-thirds of adults with disabilities took at least one trip from 2018-2019, spending $58.7 billion.

Peter Slatin, 68, was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic condition that first destroys night vision, then peripheral and finally central vision. In his early 40s, he developed early onset macular degeneration, which destroys central vision. Combined, the two have effectively obliterated everything but light and shadow in the very small window of his remaining vision.

“Traveling as a blind or deaf person means being prepared for strange encounters with service professionals, many of whom lack training and become immediately uncertain, fearful and awkward when face to face with a blind or deaf person,” Slatin says. “I am misunderstood, mishandled, patronized and literally almost violently pushed and pulled. It’s unpleasant and exhausting.

“Yet I travel because I love to visit both new and familiar destinations and even to experience the latter with vision that has deteriorated significantly from a prior visit so that I can sense the place anew.”

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) supports the civil rights of disabled people in public accommodations and transportation in the U.S., among other areas. The law doesn’t extend outside the country.

“While other countries don’t have laws as sweeping as the ADA, there are versions in Europe, the U.K. and Canada,” Slatin says. “Most people and places have welcoming and open attitudes to all travelers. However, there is still plenty of stigma around disability that can lead to unpleasant and sometimes demeaning interactions. This kind of behavior is also present in the U.S.”

After a lifetime of difficult encounters while traveling, Slatin founded the Slatin Group in 2013, a consulting firm that trains hospitality and tourism professionals on serving guests with disabilities.

Tips for those who are blind:

  • Let the airlines know you are blind or have low vision and will need assistance to and/or from the boarding gate.
  • Call other transportation providers to find out what they can and will do for you. Remember the people who work at airports and bus or train stations are not the ones answering the phones.
  • Learn about your destination’s traffic flows, street layout, and the attractions you are most interested in.

If flying internationally with a service dog, you need an International Health Certificate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is only good for one trip but includes multiple destinations. For domestic travel, every airline requires a completed U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Service Animal Air Transportation Form. According to the USDA, the agency endorses the certificate for a fee, but there is no endorsement fee for service animals belonging to individuals with disabilities as defined by the ADA.

Tips for those who are hearing impaired:
According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 25 percent of people ages 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.

Airport announcements are often hard to understand. For a person with hearing loss, the challenge is multiplied. For Leah Murphy-Swiller, 42, there is anxiety when arriving at the gate. She makes sure she is at the right gate twice over and asks a stranger or the gate attendants for confirmation. 

Murphy-Swiller, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of counseling and psychological services at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, was born hearing. When she was 5, she became deaf as a result of meningitis. She worked as the neuropsychology coordinator for a research study within Visual Language and Visual Learning at Gallaudet University. She offers these pointers:

  • To reserve flights, use online services to avoid calling. Download airline apps for real-time updates on gate changes and delays.
  • Captioning on in-flight safety videos, as well as entertainment, is helpful. Smaller flights may provide a printout to read.
  • If airlines know someone is deaf, they will ensure seats are not next to the emergency exits.
  • Research museums and accessibility at your destination. It is important for websites to show their accessibility options, such as transcripts for a museum’s audio tour guides, discounts for museums that have audio-related exhibits that leave deaf people not getting the full experience, a sign language interpreter, tactile interpreter for performances, etc. 

“Traveling, domestically or internationally, can be a daunting task for anyone,” says Chip Hahn, 58, associate clinical professor and director of audiology education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “There are itineraries to plan, lodging to book, flights and other transportation to arrange. Reservations may be necessary for certain destinations. … Travelers with hearing loss face additional challenges that can be almost overwhelming. But with some careful advanced preparation and planning, travelers with hearing loss can safely and efficiently enjoy their time away.” He offers these suggestions for hearing impaired travelers:

  • Plan ahead, especially if you’re not bringing along an interpreter.
  • Make sure that there are captioning services or that an interpreter can provide commentary at sites such as museums and historic landmarks.
  • In hotels, ask whether there are alerting devices such as flashing doorbells or fire alarms.
  • Have batteries or chargers for hearing aids and other assistive devices. For international travel, you may need a travel adapter or converter.
  • In a restaurant, ask for a table with good lighting or in a quieter part of the restaurant to minimize background noise.
  • Use an agency that is experienced with accommodating guests with disabilities. They can do the legwork and research.
  • Get email or other written confirmation that the traveler’s needs can be met.

Source: Written by Judy Mandell for  AARP Travel Blog

We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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