Over the past eight years, Howard Chabner has seen more of the world than many people ever will. With his wife, Michelle DeSha, he has visited the Roman Coliseum, ascended to the top of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, traversed Frances Loire Valley and journeyed through the great cities of Spain.
That's an impressive travelogue for anyone, but all the more so when you consider that Chabner has done it all in a wheelchair. At the age of 18, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy For more than 10 years after that, he was still able to walk – although with increasing difficulty – and even journeyed through Southeast Asia after finishing law school. But when the diseases progression confined him to a wheelchair in 1990, Chabner was determined that it wouldn't keep him from his world travels.
If you have a disabling neurological condition, the prospect of a vacation can seem more daunting than exciting. When just a trip to the corner store poses obstacles, why navigate airports, hotels and strange cities? “It's important that people travel to broaden their lives and not become too narrow in their own world,” says Michael Wasserman, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Fein-berg School of Medicine.
Trying to Experience Everything
“I've had patients consult with me about whether or not they should take a trip, and I always encourage them to do it.” Not one, he says, has come back with any regrets. “Of course, it's much more physically challenging to travel with a disability, but it's also exhilarating. It gives you a real sense of accomplishment, to overcome barriers and push the limits of what you can do,” says Chabner.
Terri Mandell-Campfield would agree. At age nine, her son Danny was diagnosed with metachromatic leukodystrophy a genetic disorder that gradually destroys the fatty covering on nerve fibers of the brain. “My son's condition is life-threatening, and he does not have long to live,” she says. “I want him to experience everything.”
With Danny, now 14, in his wheelchair, Mandell-Campfield has taken him around the country, including an unforgettable trip to Maui, where they enjoyed luaus, a helicopter ride over the island and even a specially designed snorkeling excursion. “Danny loves the water, he loves the beach, and Maui had all his favorite things,” she says.
Planning is Key
Most seasoned travelers will tell you that the key to any successful trip is good planning. Multiply that by a factor of about 100 when you're traveling with a disability With the increasing growth of the Internet, that kind of detailed planning has become a lot easier in recent years. Most guidebooks still aren't particularly specific on just how accessible a hotel or sight might be, but even the smallest establishments have e-mail addresses now, so you can find out.
While you're doing all that planning, be sure to schedule plenty of time for rest. Plan on seeing fewer things but enjoying them more.
Wherever you're going, don't hesitate to ask for special treatment. When the Mandell-Campfields went on a quest to visit all the amusement parks in southern
California, including Magic Mountain and Disneyland, they found that Danny's wheelchair scored them special benefits. “We were able to go to the head of the lines for rides rather than waiting for hours,” she says. “I think people are afraid to ask, because they don't want to take advantage, but you're allowed to - that's what those privileges are there for.”
With some careful planning, there's no reason a neurological condition should keep you from fulfilling your travel dreams. “I spoke with someone a few months ago who had recently been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and was on the fence about whether or not to go on a trip that had already been planned,” says Chabner. “I persuaded her to keep her plans and go to Italy, and she e-mailed me later that they had had a wonderful time and she was so glad she'd gone.”
Practical Tips for the Special-Needs Traveler
Planning It. Several Web sites offer invaluable information about traveling with a disability.
The Access-Able Travel Source is one of the biggest, and offers a searchable database of destinations along with trip reports, www.access-able.com
Global Access also offers a wide range of trip reports on destinations from Branson, Mo., to South Africa.
Emerging Horizons is a consumer-oriented magazine about accessible travel. You can get basic info and subscribe online: www.emerginghorizons.com
Getting There. Air travel can be the most difficult part of traveling with a disability. Services have improved, but there are still limitations - particularly with bathroom needs. Allow yourself some time after the flight to recover; don't plan an excursion immediately after you land. And give the airlines plenty of notice. If you're traveling with a wheelchair, notify the airline in advance and stipulate what your needs will be.
Staying There. Hotels vary widely in accessibility, and what hotels consider “accessible” may not meet your needs. So be sure to ask specific questions - not just “Do you have an accessible room?” but ask how wide the bathroom door is and whether there is a wheel-in shower or a tub with grab bars.
Sightseeing. Major museums, like the Louvre and St. Peter's Basilica, have excellent access for the disabled, and so most well-known attractions generally are fine. But if there's a specific sight that's a don't-miss for you, send an e-mail to ask about access.
Preparing for Emergencies. Before you leave, ask your doctor to provide you with the name of a recommended neurologist in the area where you'll be visiting. The American Academy of Neurology's directory (www.aan.com) lists certified neurologists everywhere in the world. Take an extra supply of any prescription medications, along with a medication list (including generic as well as brand names) that has your prescribing physician's name and contact information.