Let’s face it, we all start out life on wheels. In fact, most parents are quite adept at wheeling around their young
charges in strollers and baby carriages. It’s pretty easy todo when they are small. But what about when they get bigger? Can you imagine wheeling around a teenager in a stroller? That uncut curb that was once easy to bump up is no longer a piece of cake with a teenager on board.Although this example may be an oversimplification of the situation, it illustrates a very common problem. I’ve seen it played out time and time again as children get bigger and make that transition from stroller to wheelchair. Mom and dad can no longer lift them and those “few steps” that were once easily navigable in a stroller become impossible in a wheelchair.
It’s usually at this point that I hear comments from parents such as : We managed to travel when our kid was a baby, but now we cannot. Although I understand the frustration, that’s not exactly a fair assessment of the situation. Travel is still possible, even with a child in a wheelchair.
The truth is that most parents don’t give access much thought while their child is in a stroller. After all, why should they? A stroller fits through standard doorways, it’s not too heavy to bump up a curb and, if worse comes to worst, they can always carry junior.
When a child graduates to a wheelchair, parents have to think about accessible rooms, toilets, and transportation for the first time. And when this happens, it takes more time to plan, organize, and actually execute a trip. Although this can be frustrating to many par ents who traveled easily before, the good news is that family vacations don’t have to end just because your child uses a wheelchair.
car trips are a favorite family vacation option. It’s just easier to travel by car when your kids are small. Let’s face it, you take a lot of things with you when you travel with young children. That fact by itself makes the family vehicle (with plenty of room for luggage and extras) the ideal vacation transportation choice. Additionally, many toddlers aren’t exactly ideal air passengers. They get bored easily, and it’s hard to keep them entertained on long flights. On
the other hand, a road trip allows you the flexibility to make as many stops as you need along the way to relieve that boredom, plus you can pack along all those favorite toys without having to worry about airline baggage restrictions.
Car trips also present an especially attractive option for wheeler kids. As one mom says, “My son can’t fly anymore because he can’t really sit in an airplane seat. He just doesn’t have enough head and back support. He can only sit in his wheelchair. So now we travel by van and he stays in his own wheelchair. We can stop when we want, and he is safer and more comfortable this way. It’s really a good solution.” Some families take it one step further and go camping. “We usually camp with our travel trailer,” says another mom. “It is a great way to travel because we pull it with our lift van, so we have accessible transportation at our destination. Also, it is less expensive, and we can bring along any piece of equipment we think we might need, like bath chairs, potty chairs, or special bikes.”
No matter which option you choose, finding accessible rest stops along the way is a vital component of any car trip. To be honest, it’s kind of a hit-or-miss process, but you can improve your odds by seeking out fast food chains that look like they were built within the last 5 years. Most of these are built from cookie-cutter designs and, although the food may not be that nutritious, the restrooms are well done access-wise and they are fairly standard from location
to location. (The exception, of course, are older restaurants that have been retrofitted for access.) Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of resources that list accessible rest stops. In fact, I only know of one. The Oregon Department of
Transportation has a website (tripcheck.com/General/restareas .htm#hc) that lists accessible facilities available at rest areas throughout Oregon. It’s organized by route number, and it’s a very handy trip planning tool if you happen to be traveling in Oregon. Hopefully, other states will follow suit with similar resources in the near future. If you’re not towing your own accessible trailer with you, you’ll also have to find accessible hotels for your car trip. This perhaps is the biggest adjustment parents need to make when their child transitions from a stroller to a wheelchair. Although some parents can manage with a nonaccessible room when their child is in a stroller, it’s almost impossible with a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are wider than strollers and nonaccessible rooms present many access obstacles, including narrow doorways and tiny bathrooms. Plan ahead and make a checklist of your access needs and make sure the hotel you choose can meet them. Even though it takes more time in the planning stage, booking an accessible room makes for a happier vacation in the long run.
air travel has its benefits too, but admittedly it’s not for everyone. The major advantage to air travel is that it allows you to cover a long distance in a relatively short amount of time. The downside is that once you get off the airplane you need to find accessible transportation at your destination. This is sometimes hard to do; in fact, accessible ground transportation is the most often overlooked component of any trip.
Additionally, any time you travel by air, there is the very real possibility that the airline will damage your wheelchair. Granted nobody wants to have their wheelchair damaged, but for some people with highly specialized wheelchairs this fact by itself prevents them from flying. In short, it’s just not worth the risk to some people. If your child falls into this category, realize it in the beginning and choose another mode of transportation. Air travel is not the
idea choice for everyone. But air travel works for many people. In fact, when your child is small enough to use a car seat, it’s a good choice. Car seats can help with head and neck support in young children. But what about when they get too big for a car seat? Can you just make your own seating and support device? Not exactly. To take a child restraint device on an airplane, it must be Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved. What makes the cut?
Well, most car seats do, but home-made seating devices do not. Generally speaking, neck pillows, towels, and blankets are allowed, but one parent recently got a “30-inch piece of foam rubber needed for back support” nixed at the cabin door. The bottom line is, if your child is too big for a car seat and needs a lot of neck or trunk support, flying may not be an option.
Another option for lap infants is the Baby B’Air flight vest. This cotton garment fits over the child’s head and is secured by straps under the arms and between the legs. After takeoff, a seat belt can be attached to the back of the vest to secure the child. The FAA does not allow any harness to attach directly to the parent but the Baby B’Air is designed to attach to the seat belt instead of body. Although this is only an option for lap babies, it may work for children who need some extra support, but who are not comfortable in a car seat. The company also promises a full refund if any airline refuses to let you use the vest. The major drawback is that the vest cannot be used during takeoff and landing. Once you decide that air travel is for you, be sure to familiarize yourself with the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). It’s important to note that the same rules and regulations that apply to adults also apply to children. The best course of action is to familiarize yourself with your rights so that you will be ready for everything before you hit the road.