According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least 1 major life activity. With proper preparation, many travelers with disabilities can travel internationally. Some travelers with disabilities, such as those with mobility limitations, vision or hearing loss, or cognitive disabilities may require special attention and adaptation of transportation services. The following recommendations may assist in ensuring safe, accessible travel for travelers with disabilities:
Each country has its own standard of accessibility for people with disabilities. Several websites can help the traveler answer questions about accessibility. Visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages.html and enter a country or area to find information on accessibility for travelers with mobility limitations in the “Local Laws & Special Circumstances” section. Unlike the United States, many countries do not legally require accommodations for people with disabilities. Read section 6 of the State Department’s Human Rights Report for information of the human rights and social service framework protecting citizens with disabilities in the destination country (www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/index.htm).
• If the traveler’s health insurance plan does not provide coverage overseas, the US State Department strongly recommends purchasing supplemental medical insurance and medical evacuation plans.
Many non-US airlines voluntarily adhere to codes of practice that are similar to US legislation based on guidelines from the International Civil Aviation Organization. However, these guidelines are not identical to those outlined in US legislation, and the degree of implementation may vary by airline and location. Travelers planning to fly between foreign countries or within a foreign country while abroad should check with the overseas airlines to ensure that the carriers adhere to accessibility standards adequate for their needs.
In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to ensure that people with disabilities are treated without discrimination in a way consistent with the safe carriage of all air passengers. The regulations established by the Department of Transportation (DOT) apply to all flights of US airlines and flights to or from the United States by foreign carriers.
If an airline carrier provides telephone reservation and information service to the public, these services must be available to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing through a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), telecommunications relay services, or other technology.
As part of the ACAA, DOT rules require any airport terminal facility that receives federal financial assistance to enable or ensure high-contrast captioning. The captioning is required at all times on televisions and other audio-visual displays capable of displaying captions located in any common area of the terminal to which passengers have access, including the gate area, ticketing area, passenger lounges, and leased commercial shop and restaurant spaces.
The TSA has established a program for screening travelers with disabilities and their equipment, mobility aids, and devices. TSA permits prescriptions, liquid medications, and other liquids needed by people with disabilities and medical conditions. Travelers who have disabilities or medical conditions that may affect TSA screening may use notification cards to communicate with the officer. Travelers can learn more about the TSA guidelines for travelers with disabilities at www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures and print the card at www.tsa.gov/sites/default/files/disability_notification_card_508.pdf.
As with other people with disabilities or medical conditions, travelers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can provide the TSA officer with a notification card or other medical documentation that describes their condition and informs the officer about the need for assistance with the screening process. Travelers are not required to remove any hearing aids or external cochlear implant devices. Additional screening, including a pat-down or device inspection, may be required if assistance devices alarm security technology.
Current ACAA rules require people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to self-identify in order to ensure the receipt of accessible information. Passenger information, including information about flight schedule changes, connections, gate assignments and baggage claim must be transmitted in a timely manner through an accessible method of communication to those who have identified themselves as having hearing impairment. Passengers with impaired hearing must identify themselves to carrier personnel at the gate area or the customer service desk even if they have already done so at the ticketing area. The rule does not require a sign language interpreter to ensure that a passenger who is deaf receives all pertinent information.
All audio-visual displays played on aircraft for safety and informational purposes must use captioning or a sign language interpreter insert as part of the video presentation. The captioning must be in the predominant languages in which the carrier communicates with passengers on the flight. The current ACAA rule does not require the captioning of in-flight entertainment.
There may be no jetway with smaller airplanes, and travelers who use wheelchairs may need to be manually lifted up or down the stairs. Some airports have adapted hoists or lifts. An aisle chair is usually required to board and deplane. Travelers should be sure to mention they need an aisle chair, both when reserving tickets and when checking in at the airport (http://wheelchairtraveling.com/traveling-with-medical-equipment-or-a-wheel...).
Because of the ACAA, carriers may not refuse transportation on the basis of a disability. However, there are a few exceptions; for example, the carrier may refuse transportation if the person with a disability would endanger the health or safety of other passengers or if transporting the person would be a violation of Federal Aviation Administration safety rules. Travelers and their clinicians can learn more about these exceptions and other aspects of the ACAA at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/horizons.htm.
Air carriers are also obliged to accept a declaration by a passenger that he or she is self-reliant. A medical certificate (a written statement from the passenger’s health care provider saying that the passenger is capable of completing the flight safely without requiring extraordinary medical care or endangering other passengers) can be required only in specific situations. If a person intends to travel with a possible communicable disease, will require a stretcher or oxygen, or if the person’s medical condition can be reasonably expected to affect the operation of the flight, a medical certificate is typically required.
Under the guidelines of the ACAA, when a traveler with disability requests assistance, the airline is obliged to meet certain accessibility requirements. For example, carriers must provide access to the aircraft door (preferably by a level entry bridge), an aisle seat, and a seat with removable armrests. However, aircraft with <30 seats are generally exempt from these requirements. Any aircraft with >60 seats must have an onboard wheelchair (aisle chair), and personnel must help move the wheelchair from a seat to the lavatory area. Airline personnel are not required to transfer passengers from wheelchair to wheelchair, wheelchair to aircraft seat, or wheelchair to lavatory seat. In addition, airline personnel are not obliged to assist with feeding, visiting the lavatory, or dispensing medication to travelers. Only wide-body aircraft with ≥2 aisles are required to have fully accessible lavatories. Travelers with disabilities who require assistance should travel with a companion or attendant. Without reason, however, carriers may not require a person with a disability to travel with an attendant.
Airlines may not require advance notice of a passenger with a disability. They may, however, require up to 48 hours advance notice and 1-hour advance check-in for certain accommodations that require preparation time, such as the following services (if they are available on the flight):
DOT maintains a toll-free hotline (800-778-4838 [voice] or 800-455-9880 [TTY], available 9 am to 5 pm Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays) to provide general information to consumers about the rights of air travelers with disabilities and to assist air travelers with time-sensitive disability-related issues.
US companies or entities conducting programs or tours on cruise ships have obligations regarding access for travelers with disabilities, even if the ship itself is of foreign registry. However, all travelers with disabilities should check with individual cruise lines regarding availability of requested or needed items before booking. Cruise operators and travel agents that cater to travelers with special needs also exist.
Cynthia F. Hinton, John Eichwald