Traveling with disabilities to the United States

Published on: Jul 26, 2021, Last Edited: Jul 26, 2021 | Tags: Airline Safety, Traveling with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that someone suffers from a disability if he or she has a mental or physical impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities. The good news is that the ACAA (Air Carriers Act) makes it unlawful for any airline to make an unjust or prejudicial distinction in the treatment of passengers on the grounds of their disability. It is DOT (The Department of Transportation's) responsibility to enforce this law, which applies to all flights within, from or to the U.S.

The law also requires all airlines to offer passengers who suffer from a disability certain types of assistance. The list includes help with uploading and storing of assistive devices; providing a wheelchair or other type of assistance to board, disembark or connect to a second flight; and helping with the specific type of seating arrangement the disabled person may need. This makes it possible for disabled travelers to fly to nearly any international destination, provided they complete the necessary preparations. Certain types of disabled travelers, such as those with hearing loss, vision loss, mobility limitations, or cognitive disabilities might need special, individualized attention.

Before booking a trip to the U.S., disabled travelers should assess their potential itinerary in consultation with a specialized tour operator or travel agent to find out if there are any challenges when traveling with a disability. Secondly, discuss the trip with a travel health provider to get recommendations. Thirdly, plan every aspect of the trip, and book the necessary lodging that can accommodate your requirements.

What are the ACAA guidelines around traveling with a disability?

In terms of the ACAA guidelines, when a passenger with a disability asks for assistance, it is compulsory for the airline to meet a number of specific accessibility requirements. Examples include: providing access to the airplane's door (ideally via a level entry bridge), a seat with armrests that can be removed, and an aisle seat. Aircraft that have less than 30 seats are usually exempt from the above requirements.

It is compulsory for any airplane that has more than 60 seats to offer an onboard wheelchair (aisle seat), and the staff have to assist with moving the wheelchair from a seat to the toilets. Airline staff members do not have to transfer passengers from one wheelchair to another one, from a wheelchair to a seat in the aircraft, or from a wheelchair to a toilet seat. Apart from that, they are also not required to help passengers with visiting the toilet, feeding, or dispensing medicine.

Only wide-body planes with two or more aisles are obliged to provide fully handicap accessible toilets. Passengers with disabilities who need help should travel with an attendant or companion. Within reason though, airlines are not allowed to make it compulsory for an individual with a disability to fly with an attendant.

Airlines are not allowed to insist on advance notice of passengers who suffer from a disability. They are, however, allowed to require no more than 48 hours advance notice as well as 1-hour early check-in for specific types of accommodation that need time to prepare, if available, such as the following:

  • Transporting an incubator
  • Medical oxygen to be used during the flight
  • Connection facilities to the plane's electrical power supply for a respirator
  • Accommodation for an individual who has to travel in a stretcher
  • Transporting an electric wheelchair on a plane with less than 60 seats
  • Providing dangerous material packaging for wheelchair batteries or batteries used in other assistive devices
  • Providing accommodation to a group of less than 10 disabled people who fly together as a group
  • Providing a wheelchair (aisle seat) for use on board an aircraft without an accessible toilet

The U.S. Department of Transport has a toll-free hotline. The number for voice calls is 800-778-4838 and for TTY calls it is 800-455-9880. These numbers are manned from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (ET) on weekdays, except federal holidays. Personnel on these contact lines can help air travelers with time-critical issues related to disability and also provide general information to the public about the rights of disabled air travelers.

Before the trip starts

Be aware that accessibility standards for travelers with disabilities differ from country to country. Some countries, for example, do not have legislation that requires airlines to accommodate disabled people.  Consult with airlines or cruise ship firms, hotels and travel agents to find out more about available services during the journey, as well as at the destination. If you have a service animal such as a guide dog, also find out more about available services for him or her. If you have a learning or intellectual disability, talk to a relevant organization that is specialized in arranging travel for people having similar disabilities. If you are a U.S. citizen, consider enrolling in STEP, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. You will receive real-time travel advisories and security updates. Signing up to the program will also make it easier for the U.S. consulate or embassy to help if an emergency should arise.

Medical considerations

If overseas travel is not covered by your local health insurance plan, the American State Department strongly suggests that you buy additional medical insurance as well as insurance that covers medical evacuation should the need arise.

As a traveler you should always have the following with you: a letter from your health care provider that sets our important medical information such as your medical conditions, the medications you are taking, and possible complications. You should also always have medical alert information with you.

When traveling you should always make sure you have enough prescription medication with you for the whole trip, as well as some extra medicine should a delay occur in returning home to obtain more medication. Don't' store your prescriptions in a pill pack, rather keep it in the proper labeled container in the event the medication is examined by airport security or Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Certain types of prescription medicine that is illegal in the U.S. might be legal in your home country, or vice versa. Any life critical medication should be accompanied with a doctor’s or physicians note. You can phone or email the foreign consulates or embassies for additional information regarding any restrictions.

Assistive equipment

Travelers entering the United States can call the helpline run by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) for assistance regarding any medical conditions or disabilities. You can visit the TSA's website for information about procedures, policies and security checkpoints.

Also, check whether there are special policies related to devices like portable machines, wheelchairs, respirators, batteries and oxygen. Think about rather renting medical equipment and/or wheelchairs at your destination. This will require doing some research about medical equipment and wheelchair providers in the U.S. state you are visiting. If you want a couple of links to medical equipment providers abroad, visit the Mobility International (MIUSA) website or the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) website.

Service animals

Contact the embassy or consulate of the United States for more information on possible cultural differences and other restrictions regarding service animals. Try to get as much information as possible about vaccinations, quarantine, and the type of documentation required by the state you are visiting. Also, it would be helpful to consult your local veterinarian to get tips about traveling to the United States with a service animal. Thirdly, before making any reservations, first confirm with your destination hotel or hotels to ensure they will accept service animals.

Codes and regulations

Congress approved the Air Carrier Access Act or ACAA in 1986 to make sure that individuals with disabilities are not discriminated against and are treated in a way that is consistent with the safe transport of other air passengers. The regulations approved by the Department of Transportation (DOT) are applicable to all flights of U.S. airlines, as well as flights by foreign airlines to or from the U.S.

Cruise Ships

U.S. businesses or organizations conducting tours or programs onboard cruise ships have certain responsibilities when it comes to access for disabled travelers, regardless of whether the ship is registered locally or overseas. All individuals with disabilities should, however, first confirm with their cruise line of choice that needed or requested items or services are available before making a reservation. There are also a number of travel agents and cruise operators that specifically cater to travelers who have special needs.

Air travel

Quite a few foreign airlines have codes that are the same or similar to American laws based on International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) guidelines. These guidelines are, however, not exactly the same as those defined by U.S. legislation. Apart from that, the level of implementation could differ by location and airline.

Flight reservation and information services

Airlines that provide telephone information and reservation services to the general public have to ensure that these services are also available to hard-of-hearing or deaf individuals via a telecommunications relay service, TCD (telecommunications device for the deaf), or other technology.

Airports

As part of the Air Carrier Access Act, the Department of Transportation requires all airport terminal facilities that receive financial contributions from the federal government to ensure or enable high-contrast captioning.

The captioning is mandatory at all times on TVs and other audio-visual display screens that are able to display captions and are situated in common areas of the airport terminal to which passengers have access, including the ticketing area, gate area, passenger lounges and leased commercial restaurant and shop spaces.

Airport Security

The TSA has drawn up a program for screening disabled travelers and their equipment, devices, and mobility aids. It allows prescriptions as well as liquid medications and other liquids required by individuals who suffer from disabilities and medical conditions.

Disabled travelers or those who suffer from medical conditions that could affect TSA screening have the right to use notification cards when they are communicating with the officer. Readers can find out more about the TSA guidelines for disabled travelers at the following website: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures

Similar to other individuals who suffer from disabilities or other medical conditions, hard-of-hearing or deaf passengers can give the TSA officer a notification card or other medical document that explains their condition and informs him or her about the need for help with the screening process.

Travelers with disabilities do not have to remove their external cochlear implant devices or hearing aids. However, additional screening, such as device inspection or a pat-down, might be needed if assistance devices trigger security alarms.

Gate, ticket counter and customer service desks

ACAA rules currently make it compulsory for individuals who are hard-of-hearing or deaf to self-identify to make sure they receive accessible information. Passenger information, such as info about changes in flight schedules, gate assignments, connections, and baggage claim have to be conveyed in a timely fashion via an accessible communication method to people who have identified themselves as suffering from impaired hearing.

Individuals who are hearing-impaired have to identify themselves to staff members of the carrier at the customer desk or gate area regardless of whether they have done so earlier at the ticketing area. This rule does not call for a sign language interpreter to make sure that a deaf passenger receives all relevant information.

In-Flight

Every audio-visual display played for information and safety purposes on a plane has to use a sign language interpreter insert or captioning during the video presentation. The captioning has to be in the principal languages in which the airline communicates with passengers on that particular flight. Presently ACAA rules do not enforce in-flight entertainment to be captioned.

Boarding and disembarking

With smaller airplanes there might not be a jetway, which means that passengers who use wheelchairs have to be lifted up or down the stairs manually, although a number of airports currently use lifts or hoists.

To make boarding and disembarking easier, an aisle seat is normally required by travelers with a disability. Travelers should, however, specifically mention that they require an aisle seat, first when they reserve tickets and then again at the airport check-in counter.

Accommodations and assistance

The ACAA has determined that airlines are not allowed to refuse passage on the basis of a person's disability. There are a couple of exceptions though. The airline is allowed to deny transportation if transporting the individual would violate the safety rules of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) or it would endanger the safety or health of other passengers.

It is compulsory for airlines to accept a statement by a passenger regarding his or her self-reliance. Only in specific circumstances can a written medical certificate from a passenger's medical doctor be required which states that he or she is capable to safely complete the flight without endangering other passengers or the need for extraordinary medical care.

A medical certificate is normally required if an individual will need oxygen or a stretcher, wants to travel with what might be a communicable disease, or if it is reasonable to expect that his or her medical condition will affect the operation of the flight.

Conclusion

Traveling for individuals with disabilities has improved over the last few decades. There are legal mechanisms available that protect disabled individuals from mistreatment by airlines. These protections help travel to the U.S. become a more viable option for disabled travelers.

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