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The Experiences and Considerations of Traveling With a Disability

Posted December 07, 2022


Posted December 07, 2022

An aerial view of an airplane, next to an accessibility symbol.
An aerial view of an airplane, next to an accessibility symbol.

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In this post, A11iance Advocate Charles Hiser shares some of the accessibility challenges that people with disabilities face when traveling.

For people with disabilities, traveling can be fraught with complications. And the more variables involved — whether it’s using multiple modes of transportation or traveling to a country that speaks another language — the more that can go wrong.

In today’s world, technology allows us to solve more of these problems with a few taps of a screen. However, these devices don’t help much if a website or mobile app is inaccessible. Things like missing alt text or improperly labeled headings can make it difficult or impossible for people to accomplish key tasks on their mobile device. And in an unfamiliar environment, accessibility issues like this can derail a trip, break the bank, or even pose a safety risk.

In this post, I discuss some of the challenges of traveling with a disability, from the perspective of people with mobility impairments, visual impairments, and hearing impairments:

A person in a wheelchair looking up at steps, next to a stat that reads "Less than 1% of all US homes could be accessed with a wheelchair."

Traveling With a Physical Disability

When the subject of traveling with a disability comes up, most people think about ramps and wider doors for those who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

In the United States, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public accommodations and commercial facilities to be accessible to people with disabilities. But what if someone wants to visit their family for the holidays? In 2015, less than one percent of all homes in the United States were wheelchair accessible — and less than five percent were suitable for people with moderate physical disabilities.

And unlike preparing for the family dinner, accommodations for wheelchair users cannot be bought at the grocery store. The cost of renovating a home to be wheelchair accessible can range from $2,000 to $60,000, depending on the area, necessary modifications, and available materials. Families are left either hosting family gatherings at an accessible restaurant or always going to the disabled person’s home. Of course, some people with disabilities see this as preferable to the uncertainty of a damaged chair — or the anxiety of being dehumanized by airport and flight staff.

A mobile phone with an accessibility symbol on the screen, bordered by icons of an ear and an eye.

Traveling With a Hearing Impairment

Everyone has their own anxieties surrounding travel. However, people with hearing impairments can face unique social and safety challenges.

Although train stations and airports tend to have informational displays, parts of the onboarding process can be a struggle. For example, TSA checkpoints can increase travel time — even though the TSA recommends informing the officer on duty and allows people to leave hearing aids or cochlear implants in place during the screening.

Once inside, there’s always the risk of missing a boarding call due to the announcement being made audibly. The National Association of the Deaf also references people being unaware of gate changes, which can leave them stranded, or landing in an unexpected location due to the plane being diverted in midair and the announcement only being made over the plane’s PA system.

Mobile technologies offer communication alternatives, but these are not always ideal — especially during emergencies. Fortunately, the Department of Transportation provides ongoing training to help staff be aware of the needs of disabled customers and be proactive in addressing those needs.

Traveling With a Visual Impairment

Blind people regularly travel independently to new cities and, like many others, rely heavily on their mobile devices. As the technology improves, people with visual impairments use screen readers and magnification software to use rideshare services, look up directions, browse online menus, and more.

If any of these services are not built with accessibility in mind, people with visual impairments may find themselves in an unfamiliar city without easy access to transportation, directions, or even food options that fit their dietary needs.

Three icons of people. One is wear sunglasses, one is smiling, and one is wearing regular eyeglasses.

Where Is Disabled Travel Headed?

According to WebAIM’s 2022 report on the accessibility of the top one million websites, 97% of the internet is still inaccessible. Many accessibility issues directly impact the functionality of assistive software — especially on mobile devices. As the number of disabled people using these technologies grows, so does the need for increased awareness and conscious design practices to include assistive technology.

By adopting a person-first approach to disability, many of these stumbling blocks can be improved upon. While a disability can require thoughtful planning, specific building practices — in the physical and digital worlds — can help alleviate some of the challenges people with disabilities face while traveling.

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