Six million Americans face more than inconvenience when they travel for work. For employees with disabilities, business travel can be dangerous, humiliating, expensive -- even impossible. With perseverance and planning, some of these hurdles can be overcome.
The Hurdles to Business Travel
"If you're in a wheelchair, you turn your body and chair over to an airline," says Joan Stein, president and CEO of Accessibility Development Associates, a company that advises businesses on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "You pray their people know what they're doing and are careful doing it."
Because airplane aisles are narrow, wheelchair passengers must be transferred into straight-back chairs and then strapped into seats for the flight, while their wheelchairs are stowed with cargo, explains Stein. The same routine occurs upon landing -- often with long waits. As carriers increasingly turn to smaller regional jets, travelers with disabilities face another hurdle: Climbing steps to and from the tarmac. "You're stuck, literally," says Stein.
The result: People with disabilities must do more planning than other business travelers. "You have to navigate phone trees until you get a real live person," Stein says. "Ninety percent of the time, they don't know the answers to your questions, like what kind of plane is on which route. Most of the time, you have to fly nonstop. And usually that means paying much more."
Another hurdle is the airport shuttle. Despite an ADA mandate that airport vans be equipped with wheelchair lifts, Stein says most are not. The few that are, she says, must be reserved weeks in advance.
Rental cars also present obstacles. Though many companies offer vehicles with hand controls, Stein says only Wheelchair Getaways has vans with the lifts necessary for motorized chairs -- though the price is not cheap.
Problems continue at the hotel. Though chains promise consistency, that's rarely the case with accessibility, says Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group that researches travel by people with disabilities. It is hard to tell a hotel's accessibility when booking. "Even the front desk doesn't usually know if there is a roll-in shower or shower transfer desk, how easy it is to control the shower knobs or if there's room to place a lift under the bed," Lipp says.
Travelers with visual disabilities are also hampered by a lack of Braille signage in airports and hotels, while those with hearing disabilities find themselves in hotel rooms that lack strobe fire alarms or TTY communication devices.
Conference and convention centers present further barriers. "Event planners still believe people with disabilities aren't in the workforce or don't travel to meetings," Stein says. "Architects' views on compliance are not always what the law says."
Even dining can be difficult, too. According to Jamie Sharples, president of Level Travel, a Web site that rates restaurants and hotels' accessibility, "a proprietor's definition of accessible may be different than yours or mine." In the Northeast and older cities, many doors are not wide enough to permit wheelchair access, and the restroom may not be on the main floor.
The ADA affects any restaurant built or substantially renovated since 1992, but "no universal body audits restaurants and hotels," Sharples says. "The ADA is complaint-driven legislation, so if no one pays attention to violations, nothing happens."
And obstacles are not just structural; they're attitudinal as well. Airlines and restaurants often tell travelers they cannot bring a guide dog or service animal with them, though the ADA forbids such discrimination.
Expert Strategies for Business Travel
"Ask detailed questions," Stein says. "Not just ‘Is this facility accessible?', but specific questions like ‘How high is the bed?'" She advises asking airlines, car rental companies and hotels about accessibility even before planning a trip, and then fighting any discrimination during travel.
"If something is wrong, speak to a manager, supervisor or customer service," Stein says. "If that doesn't work, complain to the Department of Justice -- or file a lawsuit."
Adds Lipp: "Plan ahead. Educate yourself on your needs and your rights. Try not to get frustrated." And reward companies that are good with continued business. Business travelers with disabilities "are incredibly loyal," he notes.
The US State Department and Access-Able Travel Source offer these tips:
- Research your destination beforehand -- including hotel, airport luggage assistance and local transportation. The airport management office and local disabilities organizations can help.
- Bring any medications in carry-on luggage. For security, make sure all medication is in labeled containers. Be sure to carry prescription information at all times.
- If you use a service animal, carry health and inoculation certifications.
- If you use oxygen, make arrangements with your airline well in advance -- you must use their canisters. You will be charged a fee per canister, per leg of your journey.
- Because wheelchair passengers debark last from airplanes, allow plenty of time for connections. Ninety minutes is appropriate in large airports.
- Wheelchair users can request an "aisle chair" to be placed aboard a plane, to help with restroom access. However, not all aircrafts can accommodate an aisle chair.
- Put your name and address on all checked-through equipment, such as wheelchairs. Include disassembly and reassembly instructions, as sometimes equipment must be taken apart for storage.
- Request that your wheelchair be returned to you during a layover, if there is enough time. This assists in your mobility in the airport, and lessens the chance it will be lost.
- If you need airport assistance, remind the flight attendant before landing to radio ahead.
Travelers with disabilities who encounter problems should contact the Complaint Resolution Officer (CRO). Each US air carrier is required to have a CRO available by phone or in person at all times. CROs are specifically trained to deal with the problems of travelers with disabilities.