Toilet signs outside the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Toilet signs outside the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Travelling With Disabled Children

Since my teens I’ve been a ferocious traveller, trotting about the globe often for no purpose at all beyond my own curiosity and enjoyment. When I fell pregnant with my first child, friends pointed at my extended tummy and said, ‘Now that will put a stop to all that silly travelling.’ My first daughter was born, and we discovered she was disabled. Friends presumed their prophecy would now come true, but she’s travelled around the world with us, from camping in the Namib Desert to driving through California, her wheelchair stowed in the trunk of the hire-car. In fact, we’ve barely stopped moving since she was born, now accompanied by her younger brother and sister.

Most families with disabled children are very good travellers, having learnt through necessity to be self-reliant. Negotiating, finding out what’s available, and planning ahead are all second nature to the parent of a disabled child – the same skills you need on any family holiday. There’s no reason why a family with disabled children can’t have adventures. It’s just that we may need a little more help and planning to do so.

Top Tips: Before You Go

- Do your research. Don’t presume other people know what your needs are. Ask very specific questions to get specific answers. I once asked for an accessible room and got one, but found there was a flight of steps into the hotel itself. Staff had thought they’d given me what I wanted; I hadn’t been clear enough about what that was.

- Remember that small isn’t beautiful. That bijou B&B may be great for young honeymooners but it’s rarely appropriate for families, and in particular those with disabilities. There’s nothing like a large resort, with ramps, lifts and clear signage, to make a holiday a little easier. TUI offer many such resorts. Inclusive resorts such as SuperClubs in the Caribbean also offer everything on site, which can be handy.

- Try bespoke holidays that will fit your family. Journey Latin America is among smaller companies who treat each customer differently. Their local knowledge is invaluable. If you have particular needs, let them know and they can advise you on suitability and make suggestions, and may be able to cater to them. It might cost a bit more, but it saves on stress.

- Try self-catering, whether in the UK or abroad. There’s more room, and you can set the space up as you need it for the duration. Sykes Cottages has a good selection in the UK and elsewhere in EuropePierre & Vacances Holidays have apartments in Paris that overlook the Eiffel Tower.
- Don’t over-rely on equipment. A hotel may have a hoist, but it may not work. Equipment can break down; people don’t. There’s a huge advantage in choosing a destination that has plenty of manpower. For that reason, some of the places you might think of as the least accessible – India, for example – can be the most accommodating.

- Take anything you need– medicines, equipment, special dietary items – with you. You can’t guarantee you’ll get it away from home, even if you’ve been told you can. 

- Don’t let others make presumptions about what is and isn’t possible. You know what your family can and can’t do. You decide. 

- Prepare your family for what they will and won’t do. Be honest about this. You don’t want to promise your child they’ll be able to go horse-riding, then find the stable isn’t equipped for them. It’s better to underestimate what’s achievable and be pleasantly surprised. That avoids having grumpy kids.

Top Tips: Activities and Destinations

- Mexico gives you the chance to stay in a big all-inclusive resort yet escape to a bit of culture and history close by, including impressive ruins. 

Sri Lanka is similar, giving easy access to temples and tourist facilities.

- We’ve enjoyed villa holidays on Greek islands or, closer to home, in Cornwall  – on some Cornish beaches, you can rent wheelchairs to use on the sand.

- City breaks in big chain hotels or modern apartments often work for us. If your child has a physical disability that makes steps difficult, Lisbon has an accessible underground system. We also had a great weekend in Portsmouth, wandering around the Historic Dockyard and the designer outlet centre (shopping and history!).

Top Tips: When You’re There

- Try to sit at the same table at breakfast and other meals – ask if it can be reserved for you during your stay. That way, you know it’s set up how you need it and you don’t have to ask for furniture to be moved each morning. If your child doesn’t like noise, ask if they can keep a quieter corner for you. 

- Always ask. You’d be surprised what help a hotel or resort may be able to offer. 

- Don’t be afraid to split up. At first, I was reluctant to do anything my disabled child couldn’t do. So we didn’t climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower or Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I now know that’s daft. As long as someone stays with her to share the experience, the rest of us can wander off to places she might not be able to reach. We take pictures and then show them to her. She takes pictures of the view from the ground and shows us. That’s the deal.

- Bear in mind that different countries and cultures have different attitudes towards disabled people. My family has developed different tactics for unwanted stares: we either shower people with smiles in return, or we look over our shoulder, as if searching for the amazing sight that has so captured their attention. Or we ignore them. Do whatever makes you feel best. Don’t think just because you’re abroad, you have to put up with a prejudice you wouldn’t at home.

- Remember that you’re a family first. Don’t let anyone treat you any differently to any other family.

By Dea Birkett

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