On a Wing and a Crutch

Traveling with a disability can be difficult and humiliating, even if you're the President of the United States.

In March, President Clinton tumbled down a set of stairs at golfer Greg Norman's house in Florida and tore the tendon that attaches his thigh muscle to his knee. Days later, the wheelchair-restricted President flew to Finland for a conference with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Unable to use the roll-up stairs to descend from Air Force One, the Leader of the Free World had to be hustled through an airplane service door and lowered to the ground in a Finnish Air catering truck. There, a Secret Service agent wheeled him to a van which drove him to downtown Helsinki.

President Clinton's unceremonious arrival in Finland shows that travelers with disabilities are often accommodated as an afterthought. This is the case even though 36 million people with disabilities travel in the United States each year.

Laws forbidding the travel industry to discriminate against travelers with disabilities have been on the books for years. In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act, which requires airlines to facilitate access for travelers with disabilities. For example, airlines are required to install movable armrests on half the aisle seats on planes with more than 30 seats, so that wheelchair-users can easily sit in them. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which stipulates that public accommodations and ground transportation must be made accessible to travelers with disabilities.

Consequently, hotels and transportation have become more accessible, travelers report. But travelers with disabilities are regularly treated as second-class citizens by travel industry personnel who are unaware of their rights or needs.

Obstacles Aren't Just Physical

None of the disabled travelers with whom Government Executive spoke for this article believe traveling for the government--flying on contract fare flights, booking per diem rate rooms--additionally inconveniences them. "It would be nice to be able to fly business class instead of coach and have the extra room on long, coast-to-coast flights," says John Lancaster, executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, who is a wheelchair-user. "But I understand why the government has contract fares."

The problems feds with disabilities encounter are the same that private sector travelers with disabilities face--and these are often due to untrained travel industry workers.

Recently, gate agents refused to give an accessible seat on a flight from the west coast to Washington to a Transportation Department executive who is also a wheelchair user because they had already assigned all those seats to non-disabled passengers. Rather than reassign a seat, they dispatched an airline representative to lift the passenger over the armrest of a non-accessible seat. The representative didn't have the strength to do this, and, misunderstanding the nature of traveler's disability, asked him to stand up and sit in the seat himself. The situation was resolved by the flight attendants, who were aware of the passenger's rights as a traveler with a disability, and found him an accessible seat.

The man's experience is not unusual. In a recent survey of 500 travelers with disabilities conducted by the Paralyzed Veterans of America, only 48 respondents did not have a complaint to make about air travel.

An air traveler's best defense is to know his or her rights. These rights are outlined in the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act. The Transportation Department will answer questions about the ACAA at (202) 366-4859.

When passengers are not satisfied with how an airline is accommodating them, they have the right to call on the carrier's complaints resolution officer to resolve the situation before take-off, says Peter Shaw-Lawrence, executive director of the Society for Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (SATH), a New York-based nonprofit. The officer can override even the captain's decisions when it comes to resolving a passenger complaint.

Passengers should also demand to travel on an American carrier throughout their trip when purchasing an international ticket, says Shaw-Lawrence. If a passenger is switched to a foreign carrier under a code-sharing agreement, he cautions, the Air Carrier Access Act ceases to apply, and other, less progressive, international transportation accessibility laws kick in.

Air travelers seeking justice for unfair treatment can complain, formally or informally, to the Transportation Department, which enforces the ACAA. Call DOT at (202) 366-5957 or (202) 755-7687 (TDD).

Full Access

Locating truly accessible accommodation can also be challenge for travelers. The ADA requires all new hotels-defined as public accommodation built to facilitate first occupancy after January 26, 1993-to contain all the accessibility features described in the guidelines developed by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, also known as the Access Board. These features range from accessible entrances to low-pile carpet to a certain number of accessible rooms with features such as wider doorways and visual alarm systems. The Access Board distributes single copies of the ADA guidelines at no cost. The guidelines are also available on the Internet at www.access-board.gov. The Access Board responds to questions about the guidelines at (800) 872-2253 or (202) 272-5434.

It's a different story for older hotels, however. The ADA only requires them to have made "readily achievable" changes to improve access; furthermore, the law states that the definition of "readily achievable" is determined by each hotel's budget. Therefore, it is possible for two older hotels to be equally in compliance with the law but have different degrees of accessibility.

Even if travelers book rooms in a new hotel, there is no guarantee that the establishment will provide the kind of access they need. The ADA guidelines ensure only a minimum standard of accessibility.

It's a telling fact that the Access Board doesn't rely on its own guidelines to lead it to acceptably accessible lodging. Before the agency books a hotel for an out-of-town meeting, says Ola (her full name), an agency spokeswoman, the agency sends an employee to the destination to inspect a variety of hotels to find one that meets their needs.

Disability advocacy groups like SATH would like to see the government or a travel industry committee assist travelers by developing a universal rating system for hotels--something akin to one star for a minimally accessible hotel, five stars for a hotel that bends over backwards to accommodate its disabled customers.

In the absence of a rating system, travelers whose agency budgets don't support advance reconnaissance might resort to the next best tactic-telephoning potential places to stay and asking them about access.

An agency's travel management center is well-positioned to step into such a research role. Unfortunately, not all of those offices are up to the task, federal travelers report.

Managers might encourage their agency travel offices to send a representative to a conference being organized by the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. "Travelers with Disabilities: The Untapped Market" at the Washington Hilton from Jan. 21 to 23, 1998, will focus on teaching travel services suppliers how to make their systems work for business travelers with disabilities. Conference information is available from the PVA at (888) 633-2403.


President Clinton traveled while he recuperated from knee surgery--should you?

While the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act ensures accessibility for travelers with temporarily disabilities, John Lancaster of the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities recommends postponing the trip if at all possible. "It's going to be a lot more inconvenient for someone with a broken leg to get around than for a person with a permanent disability," he says. "They know the ropes, they know what to do. And then there's the matter of ongoing pain, which a person with a permanent disability doesn't have."

If a trip cannot be rescheduled, the executive must plan ahead. The first call should be to the travel management center: Hotel reservations and seat assignments may need to be changed to make getting around easier. Lancaster suggests travelers also contact disability organizations at their destinations for advice. "Independent living centers, mayor's offices-they know the accessible spots, which restaurants are accessible, they know about mass transit," Lancaster says.

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