Have chair, will travel

For the first 12 years after he was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident, Peter McMurdo didn’t go anywhere. “I was too afraid of what I was going to run into,” he freely admits today. “Then I bought a van with hand controls, and my world changed. I discovered getting away was a lot of fun.”

His message: don’t let a disability keep you at home.

His improved mobility wasn’t, however, without its share of obstacles. One challenge was being assured a destination was accessible, then arriving to find rooms that were too small to manoeuvre a wheelchair around. Or bathrooms didn’t have roll-in showers. Or lobby bars accessible only by stairs.

“One hotel told me they were wheelchair-accessible,” says McMurdo. “I arrived and, sure, there was a ramp to the lobby, but their idea was to carry me up two flights of stairs to my room.”

That was 11 years ago. Thankfully, travel is becoming easier for wheelies.

“The U.S. is miles ahead of us,” says Shauna Petrie, who has been using a wheelchair since 1981 when she was 16. With the passage of the landmark legislation – Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 – much has improved in barrier-free travel uth of the border.

Similar federal legislation in Canada would go a long way to understanding that “wheelchair accessible” means far more than having a few handicap parking spaces out front.

What exactly is accessible?
In other parts of the world, standards are even more ambiguous. Recalling her first solo trip at 18, to St. Kitts, Petrie says, “I had complete faith in the travel agent. But when the bellman took me to my room, I couldn’t get through the bathroom door.

He returned a few minutes later, chiselled away the door frame, and told me, ‘Have a nice holiday and don’t tell anybody.’”

Frustration at never finding a travel agent who could appropriately book a trip led Petrie to qualify as an independent travel agent, so that she could focus on clients with specific needs. Because of the volume nature of many travel agencies, they are unable to provide personalized service that people with walkers, wheelchairs or scooters require.

Petrie, on the other hand, meets with a client in their home and determines their individual needs before suggesting an appropriate destination that she personally has checked out.

Advice to a disabled person making their own travel reservations?

Many destinations don’t understand what accessible really means. So try to talk directly to someone who has actually been in the rooms at the hotel, rather than a central reservation service. Instead of inquiring if the bathroom has a roll-in shower, ask them to describe the bathroom.

If the reservation clerk doesn’t know, speak to the head of engineering, the head of housekeeping or the general manager. Never assume anything. The room may be wheelchair-friendly, but is there a ramp to get from the street into the lobby?

Cruises offer popular vacation alternatives. Peter McMurdo recently returned from a Panama Canal cruise – his first. “What a blast! It was the best trip I’ve ever had. I’ll do it again.” But beware: while newer ships are more wheelchair-friendly, many shore excursions are not.

Helpful links:

www.cruiseshipcenters.ca  – Mississauga CruiseShipCenters, 905-821-7447 or toll-free 1-800-997-9953
www.gimponthego.com  – Online publication for travellers with disabilities
www.EmergingHorizons.com  – Consumer magazine about accessible travel
www.access-able.com  – Packed with helpful travel tips
www.cpaont.org   – Canadian Paraplegic Association of Ontario
www.sath.org   – Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, a non-profit educational organization that actively represents travellers with disabilities