Special-needs travelers get a helping hand

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By Christopher Elliott

Think travel is a challenge? Try doing it with a special-needs child.

Jess Wilson knows what that’s like. Her autistic 11-year-old daughter is prone to anxiety attacks when her family is on the road. So Wilson, a disability advocate who lives in Boston, tries to smooth the way with careful planning.

But you can’t anticipate everything. Wilson recalls an unexpected delay on a recent theme-park vacation, which left her family idling at the entrance of Florida’s Magic Kingdom for about an hour.

“For an autistic child like mine,” she says, “it was torture.”

Help is on the way

Just in time for Autism Awareness Month in April. A new site called SpecialGlobe is designed to assist families and caretakers of special-needs passengers in researching, planning and booking travel. Its debut may be the latest sign that the travel industry is becoming aware of a large, and largely ignored, segment of the traveling public.

A recent National Survey of Children’s Health found that approximately 14.6 million children in the USA have “special health care needs,” a category that includes attention-deficit disorder, autism, developmental delays and brain injuries. That’s 19.8% of American kids. Yet considering their numbers, the travel industry still makes remarkably few accommodations for these young customers.

“It’s an underserved market,” says Meg Harris, SpecialGlobe’s CEO, who started the site because she couldn’t find any advice on traveling with her 8-year-old daughter, who has atypical Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder.

The reason?

“There’s very little information,” says Harris. “It’s hidden in blogs here and there, and hard to access.”

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While airlines and hotels offer general information and basic services for guests with special needs, it’s rarely focused exclusively on kids. There are a few exceptions. Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Center for Children With Special Needs (cshcn.org), for example, offers some travel resources for families. And the Transportation Security Administration publishes a special section on its site for children with disabilities.

SpecialGlobe plans to post destination reports tailored to families with special-needs kids, to host a community for like-minded parents, and to offer travel services.

All of this raises a bigger question

How will the industry react when parents and caretakers are empowered with information? Is it ready? For example, what happens when word gets out about JetBlue’s “silent” boarding, which allows passengers with cognitive disabilities to board before any other announcements are made? Will passengers abuse these services to the point where the kids who need it most might not be able to use them?

Then again, the emergence of a site like SpecialGlobe could bring the plight of these young passengers — and their parents — into sharp focus, leaving the travel industry scrambling to accommodate them. A good place to start: adding handicapped-accessible bathrooms to all commercial flights.

Parents like Melissa Kay Bishop, who travels with her 10-year-old twin boys, Arlo and Rowan, say the industry does a fine job with the obvious stuff, like wheelchair ramps. But it still has a long way to go before one of her twins, who has cerebral palsy and sensory integration disorder, can travel freely. (Read more about the challenges passengers with developmental disabilities face when traveling by air.)

“Traveling presents new hurdles for the parent with a special-needs child,” she says. “Will there be food he can eat? How will he cover any large amount of distance on foot? Will there be loud noises that will scare him? Will there be parrots there? Because he’s scared to death of them and will claw your eyes out before getting near one.”

Traveling with kids is hard. Traveling with a special-needs child is even harder. But sites like SpecialGlobe, with their promise of publishing actionable information for parents, could make it a little less stressful. And that’s progress. (Here is our guide with the best travel advice).

How to travel with a special-needs child

Work with an expert. “Use a travel agency that specializes in special-needs travel,” says Ileaa Swift, owner of Swift Travel Deals, a travel agency based in Little Rock. Families with special needs are a subspecialty of the disabled travel segment. How to find one? Look for the “disabled” designation when you search for a travel agent on the American Society of Travel Agents site (asta.org) and then ask if someone at the agency handles travel for kids with disabilities.

Plan ahead. No matter your child’s disability, experts say you won’t want to wing it. If you’re traveling with a special-needs child, it’s impossible to overplan. Know how to avoid crowds. And prepare for the worst — an unanticipated delay or even a sudden cancellation.

Practice. Before a week-long vacation, practice an overnight dress rehearsal, advises Sally Black, the founder of Vacationkids.com. Pack your bags, put out your clothes for the next day, and run through the paces. That way, on the day of your trip, this won’t be a completely new experience for your child. Make adjustments based on how it goes. “Make a list of items that would offer more comfort,” she says.

Does the travel industry do enough to accommodate special-needs travelers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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