Welcome to our inaugural post in our new interview series, where we reach out to some of the most knowledgeable voices in the limited mobility travel space. Today, we’re featuring a conversation we had with Karin Willison, a travel blogger and disability advocate.
On Karin’s blog, freewheelintravel.org, she and her service dog Aria travel the US and write about topics ranging from discrimination and the struggles to find care services, to her experiences with family, crazy roadside attractions and restaurant reviews.
Karin also serves as the Disability Editor for The Mighty, a popular website where people share their personal experiences with disability, disease and mental illness. You can learn more about Karin by clicking here.
What’s your favorite method of travel and why do you prefer it?
I prefer to road trip. I like being able to bring everything I need with me, and it’s nice having the flexibility to stop when I need to and set my own schedule.
Are there any means of travel that you avoid at all costs?
I don’t like flying due to numerous bad experiences, mostly involving my wheelchair being broken. It’s also very uncomfortable for me to sit in airplane seats because they don’t adequately support me. I think your products (click here to learn more) are a great option for people who don’t need a complex power wheelchair like mine — they’re devices designed for travel and can fold to minimize the risk of breakage.
Do you recommend any specific destinations for travelers in wheelchairs?
I highly recommend visiting our national and state parks. Accessibility has been a priority to the National Park Service for many years, and they make it possible to enjoy the outdoors even with a significant physical disability.
Have any industries in particular been slow to accommodate for accessibility?
Air travel is definitely the worst. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to sit in our power wheelchairs or even manual wheelchairs while on an airplane. And for those who prefer to sit in a seat, their wheelchairs should never go in cargo where they can be easily broken.
Hotels have also been problematic in my experience. Most have accessible rooms; the difficulty is actually getting the room before someone else does. Their reservation systems are not set up properly, and on several occasions, I have arrived at a hotel only to find that they’ve given my accessible room away. This is especially frustrating because it would be so easy to solve on their end.
What items are in your emergency travel kit?
I bring the usual items one might expect, like extra medication and clothing, but I also bring things like a shower sprayer. I’ve arrived at many hotels only to find the accessible room didn’t have one, or the hose was too short for it to be usable. I bring duct tape and WD-40 — they really can fix just about anything — and a few basic tools like pliers and a screwdriver.
Who do you usually travel with?
I usually travel with a personal care attendant, and sometimes more than one person or a friend.
What type of trip do you seek out? Are you after rest and relaxation or adventure?
I primarily seek out cultural experiences like theater, museums and locations of historical interest. I also appreciate kitschy roadside attractions and tourist traps. And I love nature, not extreme exploring but just a place where I can roll down a path and be in the forest or looking out over the water.
What destinations have been your favorite and what makes these places special to you?
I enjoy visiting Denver, Colorado, Los Angeles, Sedona, Arizona and New York City. I hope to move to Denver in the next couple of years. I have family and friends there, and I feel like I fit in culturally, plus it’s very wheelchair accessible. I used to live in LA, so I enjoy visiting, and it’s also accessible. Sedona is peaceful and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I go to NYC for the theater and culture. Unfortunately, the wheelchair access is far behind the rest of the country, but I still recommend visiting because there’s no other city like it.
What goes into your planning that young families or new caregivers might not consider before their first trip?
When you make hotel reservations, call the hotel itself to confirm, not just the national reservations line. If I have any questions about accessibility of a place, I always call first. So much depends on which city you’re visiting. In some cities, I can be reasonably sure every place I would want to visit is accessible, whereas in other cities I call about nearly everything. But it never hurts to make sure, so when in doubt, find out.
If you’re taking a trip of more than four or five days, I recommend planning a rest day. Sleep in, take it easy, and do something relaxing or that’s near your hotel. It can be hard to think about not maximizing every second during your trip, but taking time to rest mentally and physically will make the rest of your experience more enjoyable.
When you arrive somewhere, how do you find accessible transportation?
One reason I like to road trip is because I always have my accessible transportation with me. But I’ve also used maps and apps to plan my routes when I wanted to take public transportation. If I’m arriving at an airport, I always make sure I have something lined up ahead of time.
Have there been any specific revelations in the travel or lodging industries that opened major doors for you?
The ADA is the most important law protecting us as travelers with disabilities. Thanks to the ADA, I’ve found it steadily becoming easier to travel over the years, especially when it comes to public transportation and access to restaurants, museums and event venues. It’s important for us to fight the proposed bill in Congress, H.R. 620 — the so-called ADA Education and Reform Act — because it would make it much easier for hotels and other travel-related entities to get away with accessibility violations. The ADA was passed 27 years ago — they do not need more time to be compliant with the law.