Travel Checklist for Spinal Cord Injury Survivors


A spinal cord injury (SCI) can leave you in a state of uncertainty, worried about whether you'll ever again be able to enjoy your normal life. The recovery journey is not an easy one, but most SCI survivors are able to return to some sense of normalcy. Don't let your injury prevent you from continuing to enjoy your life! Particularly after a long recovery, you deserve a vacation.

Time away can help your family refocus on one another, take their minds off of the immense stress of a catastrophic injury, and help you realize that life does go on, even when you're in a wheelchair. But travel can be a bit more challenging after you've suffered a spinal cord injury. If you're ready to hit the road or take to the skies, here's your step by step checklist.

Get Medical Clearance

There's nothing quite like the spontaneity of a quick jaunt to an unfamiliar city, but spontaneity is your enemy when you have a spinal cord injury. Talk to your doctor before booking any vacation, since he or she is the best source of information about whether it is safe to travel. Your doctor does not want to limit your life, so if he or she expresses concerns, take them seriously. If you're concerned that your doctor is being needlessly cautious, consider seeking a second opinion.

Be sure to tell your doctor the specifics of your travel plan, since some travel might be fine while other travel remains dubious. For instance, your doctor might not want you to travel to a locale where a new infectious disease has sprung up, or where you will be exposed to extreme temperatures.

Know the Area to Which You Are Traveling

Planning is your best friend when traveling with a disability. It can be exciting to show up somewhere with no particular plans, but this excitement can quickly turn to panic if you realize the area is unsafe or inhospitable to someone with a wheelchair.

Make a list of destinations you'd like to visit, and look into local food options—particularly if you have dietary restrictions or are traveling to a remote location where seasonal food may be limited. Note that, while people with disabilities have a number of guaranteed rights in the United States, other countries have markedly different cultures and laws. You may have fewer protections, particularly in developing nations.

Before you pack your bags, make sure you know the following:

  • Where the nearest hospital is. 
  • Whether your doctor knows any SCI specialists in the region to which you are traveling. 
  • Whether your insurance will be accepted in the region to which you are traveling. 
  • Which local restaurants are accessible and convenient. 
  • Whether your lodging provides wheelchair-accessible options.
  • Which times of day are safest to go out, and what you plan to do during these times. 
  • Whether there are any local cultural norms or laws that could jeopardize your health or safety. 

Know Your Rights

If you're traveling within the United States, there's good news. A number of laws, most notably the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protect your right to travel freely and to not face discrimination. For this reason, consider traveling only within the country if this is your first trip with a spinal cord injury.

Your rights include:

  • The right to go anywhere you please that any non-disabled people are allowed to be. 
  • The right to freedom from harassment and discrimination. A hotel clerk, for example, cannot refuse to tell you where the pool is or tell you that the business does not accept wheelchair patrons. 
  • Accessible air travel; an airline cannot ban your wheelchair, an assistance dog, or any other device you need to remain healthy. 
  • Reasonable accommodations; the specific accommodations to which you are entitled vary greatly. Generally, though, you have a right to request minor policy deviations. For example, if an airline forbids animals in the cabin, you will likely still be permitted to request an accommodation for your assistance dog. 
  • The right to accessible buildings. This right, again, varies somewhat, but most large public accommodations are required to be wheelchair accessible, or to make changes to enable you to get inside with your wheelchair.

Rent a Van in Advance

It's easy to forget about basic needs when you travel. After all, everyone has forgotten to pack their razor, their anti-snore nose strips, or their phone charger. This doesn't change when you have a disability, but the cost of forgetting about the basics becomes much higher. Not all rental companies have wheelchair-accessible vans readily available, so don't count on being able to walk in and get one when you arrive. Instead, call ahead to ensure a wheelchair-accessible van is available, and do whatever is necessary to reserve it.

Choose Accessible Travel

Before your injury, you might have chosen travel options based on price, pleasure, novelty, or some combination of the three. Now you need to choose the option that will be most accessible to you. There's no right or wrong way to travel. Air travel can be great when you can't tolerate long periods of sitting in a car, or when your trip necessitates driving through isolated areas. Likewise, going by car may be the better option if you need to make frequent stops or react badly to changes in cabin pressure.

Make an honest assessment of your needs, and ask your family about their biggest concerns regarding travel. Then choose an option that mitigates your concerns.

Plan for Practical Realities

Something as simple as going to the bathroom can become an involved ordeal in a small airplane bathroom. Likewise, cleaning an ostomy bag or inserting a catheter can become very difficult if there's not a clean bathroom on your journey. Consider the realities of your daily routine, then look at ways you can safely incorporate this routine into your trip. Pay special attention to bathroom and elimination needs, since airline lavatories are often not wheelchair accessible, and air travel may require extended periods of sitting.

Pack for an Emergency

Prior to your injury, you might have taken great pride in being a light packer. After all, no one likes lugging endless suitcases through an airport. Your SCI changes this. Plan for every contingency. Think about any unexpected events over the past three months. Did you need a ventilator? Did your wheelchair stop working? Plan for the emergencies you are likely to encounter, and never leave behind things you only “might” need.

Talk to Local Companies About Your Needs

The harsh reality of travel with a SCI is that an unexpected event can sideline even the best laid plans. If your wheelchair stops working, you might be unable to go anywhere. Look into local companies that can serve your needs. At minimum, make a list of the nearest:

  • Doctor
  • SCI specialist
  • Medical supply vendor
  • Pharmacist
  • Wheelchair repair shop

The more you travel, the easier it will get. You might even find that the things you were most concerned about never became an issue. But until you know how your body will react to travel, it's best to plan for every contingency. Planning allows you to regain control over your life and enjoy the world even in the face of a catastrophic injury. If you can see this planning as a path to greater freedom—not a hindrance to your desired approach to travel—you'll be a more successful traveler and a happier SCI survivor.

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Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Caregivers

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