Travelling for the first time with a disabled child can be a daunting prospect.
Stepping away from your home, where you have everything you need to hand and your support network of trusted carers, friends and family, can sometimes be enough to put parents off the idea.
But holidays are a wonderful part of life that the whole family benefits from, and travel is an important part of a child’s development – disabled or not.
It’s also important that holidays might not be the only reason you need to travel so writing it off as something your family won’t do isn’t always practical. There are likely to be times when you may need to catch a plane, train or coach to visit family or access medical treatment away from home so it’s good to feel confident that you can cope away from home.
We spoke to David Stratton, who along with his wife Mandy has been travelling with their six-year-old son Jacob (pictured above), a cerebral palsy sufferer, since he was just four months old.
David explains: “I didn’t travel until I was 21, so as Jacob grew up it was really important to me to make sure that he experienced travel abroad, and as with any family it’s also an important time for us to get away together.
"We have been to Florida, Germany, the South of France and even to Jamaica, but it has been challenging at times and we are learning all the time how best to be prepared.
“One of the biggest challenges has been finding the right information to help us plan our trips, and then there is Jacob’s particular condition and requirements to consider.
"As a result we are keen to share our experiences with parents in similar situations and also learn from them.” With this in mind, David has shared some useful tips for parents planning travel with a disabled child.
• Consider booking your trip through a travel agency specialising in disabled travel or be prepared to do the research yourself; regular travel agencies are usually poorly trained in disability travel, and will not think of everything. Put time aside to research the elements mentioned here and be as organised as possible with your itinerary, it will help ensure a smoother journey and give you piece of mind.
• Tell your doctor you are planning on travelling before you begin planning - they know your child’s condition and should be able to give you specialist advice.
• Each child and their condition is unique, make sure you brief travel providers on your child’s condition and any special assistance you require before travelling.
• Assistance you may need and when you will need it
• Specialist equipment such as disability car/airline seats. You may need to book extra seats for any specialist equipment and gain permission to travel with them as per the travel provider’s safety regulations
• Dietary requirements
• Any cooperation you will need from other passengers
• Consider add-on travel services that will make you and your child more comfortable, such as Meet and Greet parking, for pick up and drop off at the airport from your car park.
• Arrange for a wheelchair or motorised vehicle if walking in terminals, stations or car parks will be difficult.
• If you have an early morning flight, consider booking an overnight hotel to reduce travel and make the morning run smoother.
• Medical help – It's worth knowing how far you are away from emergency assistance. This may seem over simplistic, but if you are staying in a private rental house away from a major city, make sure you know the address of the property and emergency numbers to call.
• Medications - If you have to travel with specialist liquid based medication, let the travel provider and airline know so they can advise security.
• Ensure you have adequate travel insurance to cover you and your child should you need medical assistance. Get quotes from companies that specialise in pre-existing medical conditions, it's incredibly important to make sure you have the right cover for you child’s needs.
As a basic checklist ensure you have with you:
- A complete travel itinerary with travel and transfer times All your usual travel documents: passports, driving license, currency, credit cards, travel insurance policies and numbers
- Travel tickets
- Specialist equipment for your child, such as car/flight seats - and make sure these are labelled clearly with your contact details (i.e. name and mobile phone number) so they can be returned should they go astray during your journey.
- A medical kit with your child’s regular drugs and any medical gear you may need in normal or emergency situations
- Letter from your specialist medical consultant confirming your child’s condition and medical requirements
- Any bespoke meals, snacks and drinks needed for your child’s dietary requirements
- Phone numbers and addresses for your UK medical contacts, travel providers who have been assisting you and relevant medical services in the local area you are visiting
- Easily transportable toys, games, blankets etc that will be familiar and comforting to your child
- Factor in any extra time to adjust seats and modify your environment as needed for you and your child’s comfort and safety. Most airlines will allow you to board the plane ahead of other passengers.
- Plan in breaks. If travelling for a number of hours make sure you have a suitable, peaceful place to have a sufficient rest or overnight stop.
- Encourage regular movement, such as stretching exercises to stop muscles becoming tight on long journeys.
[Children should be banned from TV until they're three]
David is a consultant at Purple Parking, an airport parking service, and runs the online community and-me to bring together parents of disabled children for advice and support. For a list of useful resources on travelling with a disabled child and further tips and information on air travel for disabled passengers, including details of various airline policies on wheelchair and mobility aid allowances, visit its advice page.
*Disability prevalence factsheet, Office for Disability Issues