Candy Harrington is an author, columnist, and editor focusing on accessible travel for people with mobility disabilities. Apart from editing ‘Emerging Horizons’ and blogging her travel experiences at ‘Barrier-free travel’, she has written columns for publications like New Mobility, PN, Ability, Momentum, SCI Life, Kids on Wheels, Active Living, Abilities, Frommers.com and Special Living. She has just published her fourth travel book titled 22 Accessible Road Trips; Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers in which she shares valuable tips and information about the various wheelchair-accessible sites, lodging options, trails, attractions, and restaurants.
After having traveled for over 30 years, what areas have you seen the biggest positive changes towards inclusive trip?
I’d have to say the most significant changes have occurred in public transportation. Granted it’s still got ways to go, but today there are accessible taxis, buses and airport shuttles in many cities. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, I remember one wheelchair-using friend telling me that 25 years ago the only way he could get to and from the airport was in an ambulance. Today he has a choice of two accessible shuttle companies. Now that’s progress.
How many countries and states have you visited so far?
Well, I’ve visited every state and probably about 60 or so countries (although I don’t keep a running count). And for me, a visit is defined as actually staying there and exploring the country or state, not just driving through or connecting in an airport. I’ve also lived in Australia, the UK, and Lebanon.
How does the US measure up compared to other countries when it comes to catering to the special needs travelers?
I think we’re doing a good job, certainly better than some third world countries, but I see room for improvement. For example, over in London, all of the black cabs are required to be wheelchair-accessible. And New Zealand has excellent access – they even have pool lifts and zero-entry access to their hot springs. And I guess you could call cruise ships a destination; so with that in mind, I would say they’ve done an excellent job with access, seeing that there aren’t even any access regulations for them. In fact, everything they’ve done access-wise has been done on a voluntary basis. And I rather like that proactive attitude.
What inspired you to write a book about road trips?
Oddly enough I didn’t set out to write a road trip book, but it was something that evolved because of my changing lifestyle. I used to have a killer travel schedule, in that I’d fly to Chicago one week, Cincinnati the next and then go to Memphis the following week, In between I’d fly home to the west coast, and somewhere along the way I realized that I was spending entirely too much time in airports. So I started doing fly-drive trips, where I would fly to one city, rent a vehicle and drive to the others. To my great surprise, I totally enjoyed it. In fact, I found I could take things slower, see more things and enjoy the journey. Eventually, we started making full-fledged road trips, and I just figured it was a good option for people with access issues. They’re also good for moms pushing strollers and folks who just get around a little slower. So the idea of a road trip book was born.
Why would you recommend road trips to families of children with autism?
Well, I think with car travel, you have more control of your environment. That’s not so true when you’re on an airplane. For example, if you child has a meltdown mid-air there’s no place to go. In a car, you can stop, maybe at a nice quiet park, to help calm him down. Plus he won’t be as fatigued on a road trip, as you’ll be on your schedule and you’ll be able to stop and take a break whenever you need it. And you won’t have to stand in those long TSA lines, and prepare your child for the security screenings. That’s always a crap shoot because you never know what will happen. And if your child is a fussy eater, you can pack along some of his favorite foods in an ice chest. I even know one mom who keeps some heat and heat macaroni and cheese bowls in her purse, as it’s the one food she knows her son will eat. Plus many roadside motels have microwaves, so it’s easy to prepare.
You say in your book, “Always prepare for the what-ifs.” What has been your worst experience on a road trip so far and what did you learn from it?
Well, one morning we woke up in a rural Indiana Inn and found out that we didn’t have any water. The emergency number went to voice mail, and we had to hit the road early that day, so we had to skip our showers. We were able to make coffee with the bottled water we had in the trunk, though. To this day, we never travel without bottled water!
Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about lodging properties falsely representing their amenities for special needs travelers. How would you recommend preventing that situation from arising, and if it does, how would you deal with that issue?
Well, first and foremost I’d advise people to avoid arriving late. It’s just Murphy’s Law – if you’re tired, have a cranky child, feel like crap and come late, that’s the time they are going to mess up your reservation. Plus if you come late, chances are all of the accessible rooms will be taken, and you won’t have the option of moving to a place that better suits your needs. Mistakes do happen, so if you arrive and find they don’t have the accessible room you need, you need to be able to explain calmly to the front desk clerk what you need, and then request that they accommodate you — either at their property or one nearby. And you just can’t do that when you’re tired. So split that 10 hour drive up over two days and arrive early. That way you’ll have plenty of opportunities to correct any errors in your reservation.
Would you recommend staying in a hotel chain or at small, private properties when traveling with special needs?
The smaller properties ! when you stay in small B&B or inns you’ll usually end up speaking to the owner or a family member, or someone who has a vested interest in making sure that all the guests are happy. At the larger properties, you’ll just be dealing with an employee who is watching the clock.
Many of your suggested road trips describe national parks: which park is your favorite and why?
I’m a real national park person, so I enjoyed them all, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Big Bend National Park in Texas. It’s named for the big bend in the Rio Grande, and there’s some awesome scenery there. Plus it’s pretty remote, so you don’t get the crowds like you do in some of the more popular national parks. Also, it has accessible lodging and some awesomely accessible trails.
What was the most unique food dish you’ve had while on a road trip?
Well, I’ve had kimchee (love it), haggis (so-so), rabbit (too rich) and poi (hate it); but to be honest, I enjoy tasting the different types of barbecue across the US. Different regions have distinctly different styles. In fact, I thought I’d tasted it all until a South Carolinian friend informed me that I haven’t lived until I’ve had their mustard-based one. So that’s on my must-do list for our fall road trip.
You’ve written about visiting many small towns in the US in your book; which one would you describe as the embodiment of “small town USA”?
I just love Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. How can you not love a town with a name like that? It just has a general store, a few out buildings, and some old houses, but it’s very scenic, especially when the colors change in the fall. And how many times can you play fetch with the mayor on Main Street? Yep, they elect a dog as mayor there, and from what I understand it, the election is pretty competitive
For children who are temperature-sensitive, what road trip would you recommend taking during the summer months?
I’d probably stick with Mother Nature’s Glory in the Pacific Northwest (Northern California and Oregon) or Way out West (Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, as those routes travel through some higher elevations and are a little cooler.
If you have heat sensitivity issues, though, consider making or buying a cooling bandana or try Cool Offs towelettes. (the quickchill.com). I tried the latter on a recent trip to Belize, and it worked like a charm!
In your writings, you recommend several factory tours. Which one would you say was the most educational and fun for children to try?
I’d recommend the Hyundai Plant in Montgomery, Alabama. Kids have to be in first grade to take the tour, but it’s a fun and educational experience. The tour is conducted in a wheelchair-accessible tram, so there’s no problem with your child getting tired or inadvertently wandering away. The kids on our trip seemed to love it, and they asked brilliant questions.
Out of the twenty-two road trips described in your book, which one would you recommend to a family just willing to take the plunge and try traveling for the first time?
I’d say pick a route that is close to home and stick with a short 3-4 day trip on your first time out. That way you can find a routine that works for you, and just get the hang of traveling by car. And if you forget something that you can’t replace on the road, or just have an absolute disaster, you can always head home. It’s kind of like traveling with a safety net. Once you get the hang of things and feel more confident, you can venture farther from home.
How would you encourage a family with a special needs child to start traveling?
I tell folks to explore a nearby town for a day. Get an early start, visit some attractions, have lunch, and then head home for dinner. With any luck, your child will be tired out and nap along the way. It will give you a little taste for travel and doing the tourist thing, but yet you’ll still have that safety net. After a few of those outings, build it up to an overnight stay, then just keep tacking on days. Before you know it, you’re traveling!
I’ve noticed while reading your book that you did not mention any old-fashioned or modern amusement parks; is that because some still do not offer adequate accessibility to special-needs travelers?
Quite the contrary. I think most theme parks have done a good job; however I do have a pet peeve about travel professionals and even members of the media who perpetuate the archaic notion that the only place you can vacation if you have a disability is at a theme park. I’m tired of seeing the “In a Wheelchair? Then Go to Disneyland” articles. That’s just so condescending! I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Disneyland if you happen to like theme parks; but just because you are in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you are automatically going to fall in love with them. I like to encourage people to think outside of the box, and enjoy the type of vacation that they want, not one that society thinks they should have.
That said, I do make exceptions now and again. One of those – Morgan’s Wonderland — is included in the book. Located in San Antonio this 25-acre park is filled with low-keyed rides such as the Wonderland Express Train, the Carousel and the Jeep Adventure Ride — all of which are 100% accessible, even for power wheelchair users. They also limit attendance, so children who have issues with waiting in line will have a nicer experience. It’s not highly publicized, and I thought it was worth a mention. Kids with disabilities are also admitted free, so that’s a big help on the budget.
22 Accessible Road Trips Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers
by Candy Harrington
New Published 05/2012
336 pp Paperback