Traveling With Disabilities: Tips for Group Leaders and Passengers

 Blog post author Yuri Kim using black forearm crutches while posing for a photo with her two friends on a beach in Barcelona, Spain on a bright and sunny day 

It’s been eleven years since I went on an educational trip to Spain and France with my art class in high school, but I still remember every moment of it like it was just yesterday. Such was the impact that my teachers and travel had on me. As a disabled woman who feels strongly about the educational value of overseas travel, I’m passionate about helping make educational and performance tours more inclusive. After all, no student or ensemble member deserves to be excluded purely on the basis of ability from one of the best opportunities that their teachers or ensemble leaders could offer!

As a group leader, one of your most important responsibilities is making sure everyone feels welcome and included on your trip. Part of this includes accounting for individual needs, such as the needs of trip participants with disabilities. In this article, we’ll cover: how to respectfully inquire about your trip participants’ needs; how you, as a group leader, can best support them from start to finish; and helpful tips on overseas travel for travelers with disabilities.


Planning the Trip | Recruiting Passengers & Understanding Their Needs | Learning About Disability Etiquette | Preparation for Group Leaders | Preparation for Travelers with Disabilities | Resources for Travelers with Disabilities | On the Trip for Group Leaders | On the Trip for Travelers with Disabilities | After the Trip | Contributors


Planning the Trip

Start accounting for your trip participants’ needs from the very first step: planning the trip.  Due to the numerous complex factors involved when traveling with a large group—especially when your group includes participants who require travel accommodations—it’s highly advisable to plan your trip with the help of a professional travel agency. If you are a music instructor or ensemble leader, Encore Tours is a performance tour company with proven experience in crafting accessible, tailor-made performance tours for all kinds of groups.

Even if you yourself are disabled and have traveled before, because of the incredibly diverse range of disabilities that exist and the highly variable disability-related laws from country to country, it is in your and your trip participants’ best interests to invest in the safety, reliability, and knowledge that a professional travel company offers.

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Recruiting Passengers & Understanding Their Needs

When creating sign-up sheets and permission slips for your upcoming trip, make sure to include a line for e-mail addresses and a check box that people can check off if they’ll need any accommodations. This is important for two reasons: first, many disabilities are not immediately obvious to others. This may ease some of the stress that those with invisible disabilities might feel at the prospect of bringing up their needs. Second, it helps participants with visible or known disabilities feel less singled out, which they may experience if a group leader comes up to them—and only them—to inquire about accommodations.

Teacher and student smiling and talking while reviewing documents at the teacher's desk

Once you’ve collected these sign-up sheets, see which participants have checked off the box, then e-mail them (and, if they are minors, their guardians/parents) to inquire what accommodations they will need and any considerations that the travel agency and group organizers should keep in mind. Inform them that you and your travel agency will take all means necessary to ensure each participants’ needs are fulfilled. Reassure your participants and their guardians/parents that you are more than happy to discuss accommodations and any trip-related questions they may have with them (and live up to this promise!). Take care to not inquire about the specific nature of the participant's disability or why they need any particular accommodations.

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Learning About Disability Etiquette

Before you sit down and talk to your trip participants about what accommodations they might need, it’s a good idea to brush up on your etiquette. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Consent is key. Always ask before trying to help and always ask before initiating physical contact. This includes touching mobility devices, such as wheelchairs or crutches, as many people with disabilities include their equipment in what they consider to be their personal space.
  • If your trip participant is accompanied by a personal care assistant or interpreter, be mindful to always speak directly to and make eye contact with your trip participant unless otherwise stated.
  • Respect your trip participants’ wishes and boundaries. If they state that they are able (or unable) to perform a task, respect what they say, as they know their bodies and capabilities best.

    Likewise, if your trip participant states they prefer certain conventions when referring to people with disabilities, respect those as well. For example, the dominant etiquette in the U.S. when speaking about people with disabilities is “person-first language”, where instead of placing the adjective before the person (“disabled person”), the person is placed before the descriptor (“person with a disability”). However, some people with disabilities prefer the phrase “disabled person”. No two people are alike, so be willing to listen and remember people’s preferences.
  • As a rule, avoid using terminology such as “wheelchair-bound”, “confined to a wheelchair”, “crippled”, “hearing impaired”, and so on. As stated above, your trip participant(s) may be comfortable with these terms; however, it’s best to be aware of such phrases that are commonly considered problematic and avoid them if possible.
  • Avoid making any trip participants feel like they are a burden. As group leader, you want to make sure that every trip participant feels comfortable communicating with you and that they are a valued part of the group. Unfortunately, many young people with disabilities struggle to advocate for themselves and their needs due to past negative experiences and internalized feelings from those experiences.

    For example, one negative memory I have from my trip is when a chaperone chastised a group of rowdy students by saying that he didn’t want them to break their arms and slow down the group even more. Although I now understand he was speaking from a place of frustration, back then I couldn’t help feel that my internal fears that I was a burden were confirmed.

As a person in a leadership position, it's important to keep in mind the power of your actions and words. I can promise you that your trip participants will notice your efforts and appreciate your thoughtfulness very much!

More resources on disability etiquette: United Spinal Association's Booklet on Disability Etiquette [PDF] | Disability Rights & Resources' Guidelines for Disability Etiquette | Disabled World's Disability Etiquette and Awareness Information

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Preparation & Gathering Resources

Preparation is key for any kind of travel, but especially so when traveling with people with disabilities. If you have elected to use a professional travel company, a significant amount of the work will be taken care of.

 

Some of the work involved in preparation includes the following:

  • Finding and booking accessible hotels, airlines, buses, taxis, performance venues, and attractions. This is not quite as easy as it sounds, as the word ‘accessible’ holds different criteria in different places and for different disabilities. For example, a wheelchair-accessible museum may not offer any accommodations for Deaf visitors.
  • Determining which routes between attractions and destinations are accessible. For example, many of the cobblestone roads commonly found throughout Europe are not wheelchair-friendly (for most wheelchair models) and pose a danger for those who use crutches or are at a high fall risk.
  • Communicating with international companies and performance venues to arrange proper accommodations in a timely and accurate manner.
  • Factoring in energy levels in the design of your itinerary
  • Strategies for reducing frustration at airports and ensuring there is ample time between transfers

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Travelers with disabilities may also wish to look into the following:

  • Prepare and carry a medical manifest signed and stamped by your doctor or pediatrician.
  • Look into additional medical insurance for overseas travelMedicare coverage is almost nonexistent overseas, and many insurance policies do not cover overseas emergency evacuations. If your ensemble is using a travel agency, such as Encore Tours, medical insurance may be automatically included in your touring package; however, be sure to read these insurance policies carefully to see what they do and do not cover. Your doctor(s) and local, national, or international support groups can help you find the medical insurance that best suits your needs.
  • If you use any mobility devices, pack a repair toolkit. Ask your group leader to help you locate shops along your itinerary that will repair your medical equipment if needed. Although not ideal, bicycle repair shops can help in a pinch.
  • If you use any mobility devices that require you to stay seated for extended periods of time, consider bringing an extra cushion to prevent soreness. A waterproof poncho can also help keep you and your equipment dry in inclement weather.
  • Most international airports offer wheelchair rentals and assistance from check-in to boarding. These services typically include porter services, which often allow users to bypass queues and expedite the customs and boarding processes.
  • Know your rights and familiarize yourself with the Air Carrier Access Act. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Air Carrier Access Act "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel". This page summarizes the main points of the ACAA, while this page contains printable PDFs of related documents.
  • Certain medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, nebulizers, and oxygen concentrators, can be rented from local suppliers. Keep in mind that you may still need to bring disposable parts, such as tubing or cannulas.
  • Some people who use electric wheelchairs at home prefer to bring or rent a manual wheelchair overseas, especially in destinations that lack accessible infrastructure, because manual wheelchairs are easier to fold up and carry up stairs. Consider your destination, preferences, and needs carefully when determining what equipment to bring on your trip.
  • If you require assistance in restrooms or other areas that are commonly gender-segregated, keep in mind that some places will not allow individuals of the opposite gender into those spaces, even if they are a designated personal care assistant.
  • Consider learning or creating note cards of useful phrases (such as "I need help with ____", "I am Deaf", "May I please have a seat? I have a medical condition where ____", or "Please do not do that") in the native language(s) so that you are better-equipped to advocate for yourself. Keep in mind that American Sign Language may not be understood in other countries.
  • Locate local disability advocacy organizations or support groups for your disability. These can be great resources, especially if you need extra help beyond what your Tour Manager and group leader can offer in advocating for your rights and needs in difficult situations.

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If you are in the U.S., there is a multitude of information and resources available designed to reduce the amount of stress and obstacles that may accompany overseas travel for people with disabilities. Here are just a few:

  • Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel Online Resources, an incredible trove of online resources for accessible travel all over the world
  • TSA Cares, a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances with additional assistance during the security screening process. Call at least 72 hours prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint.
  I'm not much of a traveler, and when I went to my first AMC Conference, I was worried about dealing with the TSA security checkpoint, standing in long lines, having to take off my shoes which I need for balance, and having to raise my arms up in the scanning machine which I can't do.

Fortunately, after contacting them, I didn't have to do any of that. A TSA representative met me and my mom on the day of the flight [and] took us to the front of the line where all I had to do was go through the metal detector. It made the whole experience [so much] easier and more efficient that I used it again for my second trip to the AMC Conference. 

— Anonymous Contributor, Adults with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC)

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Two young women, one of whom is using a manual wheelchair and holding a brochure, smiling and sightseeing in a downtown area on vacation on a sunny day

On the Trip

You and your ensemble are finally starting on an exciting journey and embarking on the performance tour of your dreams! This should be a wonderful and rewarding experience for everyone involved. Here are some pointers to help ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

 

For Group Leaders

  • Be mindful of frustrating or sensitive situations that may arise and have a plan in place for resolving conflicts and troublesome circumstances. This can range from cases as serious as verbal or physical harassment to situations where a trip participant using a wheelchair consistently has their view obstructed by other patrons.
  • Educate other group leaders and chaperones on etiquette and best practices while remaining respectful of your trip participants' rights to privacy.
  • The buddy system is a fantastic tool for all group trips. Consider utilizing it to your and your ensemble's advantage! This is particularly important for trip participants who need accommodations that may require them to be separated from the rest of the group at times. A buddy system can help anyone that falls into this category feel less isolated and ensure that they have a positive social experience on the trip.
  • As stated below, if any of your trip participants require energy-intensive assistance, it is a good idea to recruit at least two to four people to help them on the trip in advance. The participant(s) in question—and, if they are underage, their guardians/parents—should have first say in who these people will be. In the case that they have trouble finding people who are able and willing help, consider asking your chaperones (with participant [and, if applicable, guardian/parent] permission), or ask your travel agency if they can be of assistance.
  • While often a net positive experience, many people with disabilities will undergo at least a couple of frustrations and challenges while traveling due to a lack of understanding and infrastructure in many places—both in and outside of the U.S. Do not be dismissive: listen to your trip participants when they express their concerns and feelings. For better or for worse, because we often don't like to draw attention to ourselves, many people with disabilities try our hardest to avoid asking for accommodations and only request them when absolutely needed.
  • Arrive at performance venues in a timely manner to ensure the venue has adequately adhered to your ensemble's needs.
  • Always charge your cell phone overnight and keep it on at all times when traveling except when otherwise stated. You will want your Tour Manager, chaperones, passengers, and any other fellow group leaders to be able to easily contact you in case of emergency.

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For Travelers with Disabilities

  • Keep an eye on your energy levels throughout the day and do not hesitate to state your concerns or hesitations to your group leader or Tour Manager. Your safety and comfort should be an utmost priority. If you, for any reason, do not feel comfortable with your Tour Manager and you are on an Encore Tour, you can voice your feelings to your group leader or a chaperone, who can then utilize Encore Tours' Red Card System.
  • If you require energy-intensive assistance throughout the day (such as pushing a wheelchair or carrying items) consider asking at least two to four people to help you throughout the trip in advance so that they can take shifts. In addition to preventing exhaustion, this can help you build bonds with more people in your ensemble over the course of the trip! Let them know in advance, to the best of your ability, what you need and don't need help with.
  • If you are on an Encore Tour, we highly recommend downloading the Encore Tours/ACIS Travel App. This free personalized app provides thorough information on your trip's itinerary, flights, hotels, Tour Manager(s), climate, gastronomy, and attractions. Through the app, you can download maps from your trip's itinerary, which will then allow you to use GPS offline. Although we cannot guarantee that routes generated by GPS will be accessible, it's still a great tool to have in case of emergency.
  • Always charge your cell phone overnight and keep it on at all times while traveling unless otherwise stated. You will want to make sure that you are able to easily and quickly get in touch with the right contacts in case of unexpected circumstances during the trip.

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After the Trip

Whew! What an adventure! You and your ensemble are finally back to home, sweet home, after what was surely the experience of a lifetime. In the age of the Internet and social media, it's always nice to share photos, videos, and memories from the trip online, whether that be in a private Facebook group, on a public Facebook page, or on the school website.

 

If you're posting on your school website, ask your school webmaster to ensure the trip page adheres to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

If you're posting on social media, here are some best practices to follow to keep your social media presence as professional-looking and accessible as possible:

  • For pictures, include a description of what's in the image. For example, this image might have the following caption:

Rockport High School Orchestra in formal attire posing and smiling for the camera, with some members holding their stringed instruments and bows, at the High Altar of St. Stephen's Cathedral

  What a fantastic trip! Our favorite part was performing at St. Stephen's Cathedral, with its stunning architecture, rich history, and amazing acoustics. We can't wait to go back again next year!

[Image description: Rockport High School Orchestra in formal black-and-white attire posing and smiling for the camera, with some members holding their string instruments and bows, at the High Altar of St. Stephen's Cathedral]  
  • For videos with sound, include captions. This is easy to do on Facebook - just follow the steps outlined here. If you don't have an .srt file, scroll down for steps to adding automatically generated captions.

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We are more than happy to provide answers and resources about accessible performance and educational tours, so please feel free to contact us with any additional questions and/or concerns!


A Huge Thank You to...

I am very grateful to the following online communities for their valuable time and input in helping me put together this article: Adults with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), ARTHROGRYPOSIS, and Women with Arthrogryposis.

In particular, I would like to thank the following people: Hayley Collier, Gabriel Ramirez, and Ann Johnson-Stromberg.

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Contact the Encore Tours team with any questions or concerns about taking your musical ensemble to new places!

About the Author

Yuri Kim

Born in Hong Kong, Yuri split her childhood and adolescence between South Korea and New Jersey. In addition to a love for travel and learning, she also has a passion for art and enjoys playing the classical and electric guitar in her spare time.

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