About one in five Americans-nearly 53 million-has some type of disability, according to the federal government. And growing numbers of those with a disability-whether it's limited vision, a hearing impairment or a mobility problem that makes a wheelchair mandatory-are traveling.
"The trend is definitely upward," says Laurel Van Horn, executive director of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, or SATH, a New York-based nonprofit organization. Although she has no statistics, Van Horn says the airlines have been reporting substantial increases in the number of requests for assistance from passengers with disabilities.
Similarly, cruise lines say the number of disabled passengers is increasing, partly because newer ships are more accessible.
A major spur was passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which mandate equality of access.
The phenomenon of the limited-mobility traveler will grow, Van Horn says, as the number of older Americans grows.
A sampling for resources:
* Nonprofit organizations are working with businesses to improve accessibility and provide accurate information for travelers. SATH, for instance, is consulting with AAA (formerly the American Automobile Assn.) on a new series of guides, "Barrier Free Travel." The first two, due out this fall, will focus on California and central Florida. They will have information on accessible hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions.
Eventually the information will be incorporated in the familiar AAA Tourbook guides. SATH's Internet site, http://www.sath.org, also carries a long list of links to resources for travelers with disabilities.
* The federal government has a wealth of information for airline passengers with disabilities on the Internet site http://www.faa.gov/acr/dat.htm. Or visit the Department of Justice site devoted to the Americans With Disabilities Act, http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm.
* Internet databases for travelers with disabilities are proliferating. These incorporate information from businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. For instance, KFH Group, a transportation consultant in Bethesda, Md., gathered information from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration and Easter Seals to produce a travel guide on the Internet at http://www.projectaction.org/paweb/index.htm. It includes lists, by city, of accessible transportation. Access-able Travel Service, http://www.access-able.com, is an online magazine with features about vacation destinations and links to travel service providers. One small example: a deep-sea fishing boat that is wheelchair-friendly.
* The number of travel agencies and tour organizations that specialize in serving travelers with disabilities is small, but many have been in business for decades. Some examples:
The Campanian Society in Ohio is devoted to the classics and the arts, but it also sponsors tours for visually impaired and blind people. Owners Robert and Michelle Wilhelm have arranged tactile (hands-on) tours in museums in Boston, New York and Naples, Italy. Information: Campanian Society, Inc., http://www.campanian.org, tel. (513) 524-4846.
Dvorak's Kayak & Rafting Expeditions in Colorado offers these activities as well as parasailing and fishing for people with and without disabilities, including those who are blind. The excursions are on rivers in the West. It's at http://www.dvorakexpeditions.com, tel. (800) 824-3795.
Mobility International USA, http://www.miusa.org, tel. (541) 343-1284, is based in Eugene, Ore. It runs a clearinghouse, funded by the U.S. State Department, that helps people with disabilities who want to do volunteer work overseas.
Even with all this help at hand, travelers with disabilities must do their part to ensure they will have the services and facilities they need at their destination. Take along helpful devices. When booking escorted tours, Dvorak says, "make sure whomever you are working with understands exactly what you need" and is capable of providing it.
Van Horn gives an example: Instead of telling a tour operator you can't stand in a shower unassisted, let him or her know what kind of shower bench works best.
Doheny can be reached at email@example.com.