Imagine being 'forgotten' in an airport basement for hours. This traveler lived it.
- Spur-of-the-moment vacations are not feasible for travelers with disabilities.
- Aside from health issues, disabled travelers sometimes have to contend with untrained staffers.
- Travel can be a minefield of complications for those with disabilities, but preparing for bad scenarios has proven helpful.
"Traveling with disabilities" is a 10-part series focusing on the experiences of travelers with disabilities. This is part of our continuing mission to highlight underrepresented communities in travel. If you'd like to contribute to our reporting and share your experience as a source, you can fill out this quick form.
About three years ago, Molly Burke – who is legally blind – was steered through an airport in a wheelchair. She said she was left inside the basement for hours alone. Burke wasn't told that her flight had been delayed and claims airport workers had "forgotten about the blind girl downstairs."
Miranda Salazar, who was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, packs an entire kit of medications and a comfort pet animal to prevent triggers at the airport. Chelsea Bear, who has cerebral palsy, often spends most of her time at the airport educating workers on how to handle her mobility scooter and her disability.
TRAVELERS YOU WON'T FIND AT AIRPORTS:Omicron impedes travel for many people with disabilities
People with disabilities face miscommunication, anxiety and hours of preparation before even arriving at the airport. Spur-of-the-moment vacations are not feasible, but when they happen, disabled travelers often have to contend with accessibility issues, unhelpful staff, triggers or a combination of all.
"It happens countless times when someone in a place of power doesn't take the time to understand disabilities and terrifies us. So we work extra hard to prepare before travel," Burke, an influencer and motivational speaker, told USA TODAY.
'A day of travel takes a week to prepare'
Bear, a blogger who documents her journey with cerebral palsy, has been defying limitations since she was diagnosed as a teenager.
Before planning a trip, Bear researches whether a city, state, or country has accommodations for people with disabilities. Oftentimes, she calls hotels and restaurants months in advance to ensure they have elevators and other attractions nearby so she doesn't have to walk far. Bear, who uses a mobility chair, said she'll check if certain cities offer Uber or rideshares with a wheelchair ramp.
Similarly for Burke, planning can make or break a trip. The Oakville, Canada, native preboards so she can get acquainted with her seat, find the best spot to place her water and make sure her seat belt works. She also requests a braille iPad or screen when traveling internationally.
"Whether to New York or London, people like me just have to prepare. I can't afford to take a spontaneous trip without thinking whether a hotel was made with my needs in mind," Bear, 29, said.
The Tampa, Florida, native recommends placing a trackable tag on scooters in case of loss. Oftentimes, she's pushed to educate airline workers on how to handle her scooter, and in a few cases, it was returned to her with "minor scratches and bent pieces."
'THIS IS MY LIFE, MY LEGS':After a woman's wheelchair was damaged on a Delta flight, 'heartbreaking' video goes viral
"People with disabilities, we can do it all, travel, fly and explore. There's just hurdles and less spontaneous trips," Bear said.
When arriving at airports, the Phoenix resident requests a wheelchair to easily get through crowds and security and packs twice as much medicine as she needs both in her luggage and purse, in case one is lost.
After her crutches were lost at an airport, Medina also advises all travelers to use a tracking tag on luggage and mobility aids.
"Normalizing traveling while disabled is a huge step in getting more accommodations for us. We shouldn't be told what we can and can't do because others don't want to be accommodating," Medina, 23, said. "I won't be told what to do."
TRAVELING WITH CANCER:'The best part was watching everyone smile'
'I'm often forgotten'
Accommodations are one part of the equation. Disabled travelers also have to contend with untrained staffers or chaotic environments, as well.
When Burke, who is legally blind, asks for a guide at the airport, usually one person will take her through security and another to the gate. But when the person switches off, she's often forgotten.
"It's ridiculous that one person, a human, can be forgotten and put aside at the airport. It was a terrifying few hours because I was confused and didn't know where I was or if I'd make my flight," Burke, 27, said.
In Salazar's opinion, airports are designed only for neurotypical people, not folks like her, who are diagnosed with clinical anxiety. She describes her anxiety as having little sensors or scans in her brain, scanning for dangers or triggers. In an airport setting, with large crowds, TSA agents and high stress, her anxiety is often triggered.
Salazar often wears a hoodie and eye mask when traveling so she can "make it dark when needed to calm her." She opts for clothing that's less restrictive and brings soft objects like her favorite stuffed animal.
"I don't mind looking silly. My stuffed animals, my eye mask and headphones, my whole routine helps me stay calm when traveling," Salazar said.
When passing through security, she wears headphones to block out loud noises or "negativity" from others. If someone loudly slams down luggage, it'll trigger Salazar's anxiety so she tries to drown it out with music. When she needs space, she'll forego a chair and sit on the ground.
"Anxiety can be triggered in many ways. For me, it's loud noises, but for my sister, it's the stress of traveling and waiting. It'll trigger her stomach and she'll start throwing up," Salazar said.
If Salazar or a family member does experience a panic attack or needs assistance with triggers, she finds airport workers and flight attendants aren't helpful.
"A lot of times it's hard for airline workers to see or believe an invisible disability. It's hard to explain especially when you're having a moment, so I try to travel with someone I trust who can explain for me or use my eye mask and routine to avoid bad situations," Salazar said.
But sometimes bad situations are unavoidable. As was the case when airline workers yelled in Burke's face because she wasn't following instructions. The worker, she says, was "pointing and screaming 'grab that,'" but Burke couldn't see what she was referring to.
"People see me and don't see a disabled person so they'll use visual words I just don't understand and then yell," Burke said. "So I'll use a wheelchair or sunglasses to physically show I have a disability and need accommodations."
'The hell I can'
Travel can be a minefield of complications for people with disabilities, but preparing for bad scenarios has proven helpful.
When traveling to a new city or state, Salazar will organize each activity for each hour of the day and include backup plans. She said this gives her back "some control" over her anxiety and helps her cope when there's a change of plans or inclement weather.
"Anxiety is hard in any situation, but my small routine and habits help me cope and travel often. But it doesn't have to control what we can't do," Salazar said.
Medina meticulously plans her trips across the country, oftentimes alone. She uses forearm crutches due to a decreased function in her legs, so when traveling she focuses on cities with wheelchair ramps instead of stairs, rideshares with ramps and nearby attractions. Medina prefers traveling near the water where she "feels like I can walk freely."
Medina also looks for attractions where wheelchairs are easily given, such as museums or zoos.
When she was diagnosed, Medina was told traveling, high-stress activities and a "regular" life wouldn't be her reality.
"I had doctors telling me you can't do this, you can't do that, and I said 'the hell I can,'" she said.
Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda