Illustrations by Doug Davis
As the global pandemic grinds on, many people with disabilities dream of traveling near or far as a break from the monotony of isolation. But whether it’s a trip to the river or across the Atlantic Ocean, a vacation week away or a day excursion, everyone has big questions — logistical, physical, emotional and ethical. When will it be OK to travel? Is it safe to hop on a plane? Safer to board a train? Is a cruise something to consider or to be avoided? With so much uncertainty, is travel even worth the risk?
Add on top of these concerns the many considerations disabled travelers have been contending with for years, and planning quickly becomes even more complicated. A great deal of advance groundwork and layers of logistics are necessary. These may include researching and securing lodging that is barrier-free, scheduling and paying a team of assistants who will be in close proximity, and arranging transportation that provides access for a wheelchair, ventilator or service animal.
What are the specific travel issues that will face travelers with disabilities during and after the pandemic? Some regular travelers have barely left their homes, others have resumed adventuring while adapting their methods, and many more are still trying to make sense of the new realities and obstacles COVID-19 presents.
I spoke with a number of accessible travel experts, industry insiders and regular travelers to better understand where we are and what the future of accessible travel holds. One thing became clear: What constitutes travel and where and how we travel may never be the same again.
To Travel, Or Not To Travel?
Because clarity about the unprecedented situation surrounding the pandemic is only starting to emerge, how people approach their travel plans varies depending on how much risk they are willing to bear. Back when COVID-19 started ravaging America, accessible travel writer Cory Woodard canceled all of his immediate trips and locked down. “I was not going anywhere,” he says. “I was scared to death about traveling and getting out there, and I thought it wouldn’t be safe at all. How could you monitor it? How could you make it safe?”
Over the last six months, having more knowledge about how the virus is transmitted eased some of Woodard’s concerns. He has still sworn off air travel for 2020, but has since embarked on five successful road trips — three to national parks, one to the beach and one to an alpaca farm — all using his van and a good amount of planning.
“Now, I really feel like I could go on almost all road trips safely. My worries have definitely eased the more that I’ve traveled during the pandemic,” says Woodard.
Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson also find solace in the control offered by road trips. Normally, they travel the world together as Wobbly, a multidisciplinary performance company specializing in film and movement. Connecting with other performers is an important part of Wobbly’s innovative work, but that’s not an option during the pandemic.
“Travel is meaningful for us,” Ferguson reports, “but it seems like such a foreign concept now. Our life has a one-mile radius, and we aren’t even taking cabs or public transit. We are on hiatus from performance, learning the art of survival in pandemic times.”
They are using the enforced break from creating, teaching and performing to recharge via close-in travel to destinations not far from their Portland, Oregon, home. “Last week we rented a van for two days,” Arakelyan says. “One day we went to the beach and another to Mount Hood. We packed everything we needed and didn’t use any public restrooms or facilities. That felt safe and good.”
Ferguson appreciates the silver linings of being away from his usual concerns. “For me, there was this sense of timelessness and comfort, a comfortable eternity,” he says. “Everything we needed was there. Good food, great friends and our old dog with the wind in his hair.”
Wobbly probably won’t be venturing farther afield for quite some time. “I can’t even imagine thinking about air travel,” Arakelyan says. “I won’t be doing that until there’s an effective vaccine. I think we will be able to travel safely again, but it’s going to be much longer before we get there. This is going to last through 2021 at least.”
Rhona Coughlan, a disability advocate and life coach in Cork, Ireland, feels similarly. With close friends in the United States, Coughlan has traveled to California, Oregon and Hawaii in the last five years. Rhona says these times of isolation make her turn her attention to prospects of travel, but the consequences are daunting.
“I am itching to get to see my friends in Portland,” she says. “But you could give me a million Euros to travel on a plane, and I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even dream of it. I wouldn’t put myself at risk. I don’t see leaving Ireland in the next 13 months.”
A Vaccine’s Potential
The reluctance to return to air travel shown by all of these travelers matches up with recent surveys of travel plans. A study in June from the global consultancy firm Bain & Company found that most people now working from home consider themselves more likely to plan leisure travel than business travel, and travelers considering leisure travel intend to stay closer to home. No matter what their plans had been for 2020 and 2021, three times as many travelers now see themselves sticking to domestic destinations rather than international ones, if they travel at all.
Despite not travelling since she returned from Hawaii in early March, Sylvia Longmire has sustained herself by maintaining her award-winning accessible travel site, Spin the Globe. “I don’t know if travel is ever going to go back to what it was, and I’m perfectly prepared to adjust, but I’ve been perfectly happy staying at home,” she says.
The recent departure of her sons to spend time in Germany challenges her resolve, but Longmire says she won’t fly again until there is a safe and effective vaccine. “I’m still heartbroken about that, but I don’t know when I’m going to see them again,” she says. “And it’s really, really difficult as a mom to know that, for my safety and for theirs, Germany won’t even let me in.”
Like Longmire, many travelers with disabilities regard a vaccine for the novel coronavirus as a baseline for considering traveling again. As an effective vaccine may be anywhere from weeks to years away, questions remain. Will the pandemic subside entirely or become cyclical? Will the vaccine be a one-time shot that confers long-term immunity? Or will we need a yearly injection similar to our current yearly flu shot? Or will the vaccine last only briefly and require regular boosters to be effective? Will the vaccine be required for travelers, or will it be optional? And will people willingly take the vaccine or will many refuse and put others at risk?
Before cofounding the accessible lodging startup Accomable and serving as the head of accessibility for Airbnb, Srin Madipalli was a research scientist working on genetics. His background gives him a uniquely qualified perspective when it comes to considering a vaccine’s potential.
“My biggest feeling for the moment is that rather than there being a smoking gun vaccine that solves the whole thing, we will have a patchwork of intervention,” he says. “So maybe there’ll be a vaccine that works for some people and a handful of therapies that diminish the seriousness of the virus for others. There’ll be a patchwork of solutions that kind of diminish the chaotic element of it. Instead of it being a catastrophe, it may become more like a nuisance.”
He points to regions of the world with few cases and declining numbers as examples of destinations he is more likely to consider in the interim before a vaccine. “Will I go now? No, because cases are cranking up in London and I don’t want to go through a busy airport. But there are corridors of travel where I see possibilities.”
Reduction of Options
Even if disabled travelers are ready to roam, accessible travel may be harder to arrange. “There are a lot of companies out there internationally that specialize in accessible travel, and they are very small,” says Candy Harrington, author of the Barrier-Free series of accessible travel books. “A lot of operators that specialize in accessible travel may not survive the downturn.”
Woodard maintains relationships with accessible travel operators around the world for his website, Curb Free with Cory Lee, and he is already seeing Harrington’s prediction come true.
“I’ve worked with a lot of smaller tour companies over the past six and a half years since starting my blog,” he says. “A lot of them are really suffering right now because not many people are traveling, much less someone who uses a wheelchair. Then you add in that we literally can’t even travel internationally … so it’s really a struggle for those tour companies. There’s just no way to do business right now.”
Longmire has already rescheduled a family cruise planned for this summer and is now worried about the Baltic cruise she has planned for next year.
“A lot of these operations are new and operating with a very narrow profit margin,” she says. “I’m really scared that once travel starts to ramp up that a lot of these companies that provide such an invaluable service to wheelchair travelers won’t be around anymore.”
Those that do remain will have to adjust to the new realities of a post-COVID-19 world. “Travel providers must require masks and/or face shields, the use of hand sanitizer and physical distancing,” says Longmire. “I know it’s awful for people with disabilities who might be restricted from traveling because they can’t wear masks, but I think public safety and public health are the greater concern here.”
Madipalli anticipates a tough year or two for businesses that cater to the disability audience, and he says their ability to rebound will be tied to how they adapt.
“A lot depends on those businesses, right?” he says. “How they’re run and what their resourcing is and how much can they tighten their belts. But then maybe there’s also which of those companies adapt? People will want to travel over the next year or two. So how do those businesses pivot their business models? For example, how do they re-adapt their business models to facilitate travel to places where maybe there isn’t as much risk?”
Those new considerations may change the calculation that many disabled travelers already make each time they plan a trip. As Harrington puts it: “There’s a difference between ‘whoops, your wheelchair may get broken,’ or ‘you may die.’” Disabled travelers face myriad inherent challenges under the best of circumstances. When coupled with a life-threatening pandemic, every trip for a disabled person becomes an existential debate.
Madipalli says travelers will need to ask themselves uncomfortable ethical questions as they consider returning to travel. “I have to make sure that I am not taking the virus with me, that I’ve been tested and anyone with me who is vulnerable is wearing a mask,” he says. “This is basic human decency, to feel safe to travel as a human being. That’s not disability-related.”
During mandatory lockdowns prompted by the pandemic, people had to decide their comfort level with going to the grocery store, socializing in public or wearing a mask. The decision of whether to travel now affects not only individual travelers, but also their family support systems and surrounding community. Where a common cold can cause serious issues for an individual with respiratory compromise, a COVID-19 infection could be much worse, even for survivors. Long term health implications could include changes in respiratory function, heart health, digestion and fatigue.
Travelers with disabilities are going to have to balance the desire to explore and get away with the realities posed by the ongoing pandemic. For his part, Madipalli spent the majority of the last six months in his London apartment, seeing only caregivers and family. As the number of positive cases has declined, Madipalli has slowly emerged from his quarantine but he has yet to resume traveling.
“I’m not using public transport, and I generally have not gone inside many buildings,” he says. “If I’ve gone to meet a friend or go for dinner with people, it’s been outside, as I generally have tried to avoid doing things indoors. I’m trying to live my life, while also taking reasonable precautions that mitigate risk.”
If all this talk of risk and planning is dispiriting for dedicated disabled travelers, remember: Eventually, traveling will resume — but it will happen gradually. Barring a medical necessity, Madipalli doesn’t see himself travelling until early next year, other than possibly undertaking some drivable domestic trips. “We will travel,” Madipalli predicts. “But it will just be more local for a couple of years, starting closer to home. Go on a day trip to a less crowded destination. Go by train not by plane. Include being sensible and reasonable in thinking about travel.”
Madipalli muses on how this year has unfolded: “If you had told me there would be an international shutdown, I would have asked what you are smoking. It is going to be a strange 12 months. Prepare to be surprised.” That may be the best single preparation travelers — with or without disabilities — can make.
** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/10/return-to-accessible-travel-covid/