Tips for Traveling: A Checklist for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Will you be traveling with your child this holiday season?

We interviewed parents of children with challenges ranging from hearing loss to quadriplegia. They agreed that parents should prepare for traveling with their child who has special needs just as they would for any other child. Parents need to consider what accommodations may be necessary and plan for them.

Plan Ahead

“Our preparations for [our son] aren’t much different from what we do to keep our non-special needs daughter happy in the car,” says Janinne Berlin of Milford, Conn., whose 6-year-old son has fragile X syndrome. Berlin makes sure she brings along plenty of distractions, food and water for her son, just as she does for her daughter.

“Adapt regular equipment when possible,” she says. “At some point, kids need to get used to regular equipment. Don’t worry about mess – you’ll be far more sane.”

John M. Flanders’ 13-year-old son Nate has profound hearing loss. “I think the biggest problem … is that his condition is invisible to people,” says Flanders, a Cromwell, Conn.-based special education attorney and member of the Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Travel Checklist

Parents can use these tips to help ease some of the stress associated with traveling:

  1. Plan well ahead.
  2. Include your child in the planning to the extent possible.
  3. Choose vacation spots with your child’s abilities and challenges in mind. For example, if your child has behavior problems, choose a family restaurant rather than a fancy dining establishment.
  4. Make all reservations with a live person so you can explain and discuss your child’s specific needs and available accommodations.
  5. Ask very specific questions about the accommodations your child needs. For example, ask about shower seats, walk-in showers, high or low toilet seats/adapters, ramps, noise levels in common areas and anything else that will affect your or your child’s experience.
  6. If you have questions about required accommodations, visit www.access-board.gov or www.ada.gov or call the ADA for more information at: (800) 514-0301.
  7. Learn about routine practices at your destination that may cause problems. Many resorts maintain offices specifically to help their visitors.
  8. Bring along all the equipment your child normally uses, such as a wheelchair, canes, crutches, walker and medications, etc. Box what you can at the airport to check with your other checked luggage.
  9. If you have younger children, be sure to bring games, toys, etc. to keep your child entertained, just as you would do for any child.
  10. Give yourself lots of extra time. Then allow even more time.
  11. Keep a positive attitude. It encourages others to help you.
  12. Travel with lots of small bills so you can tip those who help you.

Flanders has found that airplane travel presents some unique challenges. “Airplane noise is a problem,” he says. “The main thing we have to insist is that he [Nate] be near us.”

And of course there’s the issue of airport security. Nate uses an FM radio transmission system when he travels, so getting through airport security can be a challenge. According to Flanders, however, security personnel are generally understanding.

“One of the best sources of information is the U.S. Access Board,” Flanders says. “It’s a federal entity that was founded to help implement ADA standards.”

Flanders also advises parents to ask specific questions about necessary accommodations and any other factors that might affect a child. For example, when the Flanders family visited Disney World, they had to avoid allowing water spray to hit Nate’s hearing aids.

Make it Fun

Cissie Molinaro of Corinth, Miss., traveled by car with her now-adult daughter Olivia, who has profound hearing loss. While it was difficult to speak with Olivia during the ride, Molinaro says Olivia was satisfied entertaining herself during their travels.

“What we always did when we took long trips was to take coloring books, small toys, that sort of thing,” Molinaro says. “[We took] a bag of surprises that they could only open when we got down the road a little: puzzles to work, books to read, coloring books and small toys. They always thought it was really neat.”

Like Molinaro, Eva Greenwald of Westport, Conn., carefully packs a number of entertaining items for her 12-year-old daughter Hilary, who has autism.

“We always hit her favorite places and let her help plan out the trip and each day’s excursion,” says Greenwald, who is president of the Connecticut-based organization We Belong: Inclusion in Fairfield County. “The only issue we haven’t quite worked out yet is her aversion to flying. She had a bad experience a few years ago.”

Christine Santori’s 8-year-old son Sean has a condition similar to cerebral palsy and walks with canes. He also has severe food allergies. Santori’s No. 1 tip is to plan and give yourself plenty of time.

“We always travel with fives [five dollar bills] so we can tip all of those who help us out,” says Santori of Ridgefield, Conn. “It takes a village!”

Book with Care

When it comes to making travel bookings, Santori has found that talking to a live person is a must. “Make airline reservations with a live person so that you can tell them that you are traveling with a handicapped child, and then discuss with them what services/accommodations they can offer you,” she says. “The same applies to hotel reservations.”

Vicky Sigworth of the New Haven, Conn., area found flying internationally easier than she expected after her 19-year-old son Jon sustained a spinal cord injury last year that left him with limited use of his arms and no use of his legs.

“Our experiences have been so positive that we plan to return to the Spinal Cord Injury Centre in India [where Jon spent his first five weeks post-injury] during January with him,” Sigworth says. “Attitude is everything. When your attitude is gracious and you don’t worry about things, people are willing to help most of the time.”

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