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Holiday travel creates extra considerations for Vermonters with disabilities

An airport sign shows a stylized image of a person in a wheelchair, a clock and a suitcase.
When people with disabilities travel, they often have to do extra planning to make sure the places they're visiting are accessible.

One in five Vermonters has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disabilities can range from mobility issues to chronic fatigue, to having low vision or deafness.

As many Vermonters gear up for winter holidays, having a disability can create more factors to consider before traveling.

Peter Johnke is deputy director at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, a statewide organization that advocates for people with disabilities and support services to help them fully participate in community life. Recently, he spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch about barriers to travel for people with disabilities. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Well, when I first reached out to you to do this interview, I was asking about holiday travel for people with disabilities. And your answer was, "The same barriers exist as with any other time for traveling, it's just exacerbated by crowds of people!"

So let's start there. Some people with disabilities use mobility devices like wheelchairs; some folks use a service animal; others have sensory issues, and other folks speak American Sign Language. So there's so much variation, Peter. What are some of the barriers to travel for people with disabilities?

A person with long reddish-brown hair wearing a light green collared shirt against a slate blue background smiles broadly at the camera.
Peter Johnke
Peter Johnke

Peter Johnke: You mentioned people with wheelchairs and other mobility devices — still there is so much in this country that isn't accessible, buildings you can't get into. Progress is certainly being made. But there's so much more to do, especially with holiday travel.

One of the things that I think about is a lot of people with disabilities — because of their disability — have compromised immune systems. So, they have to be especially careful in traveling, with large groups, in public transit, whether it's planes or trains, or however they're going to their destination. And that creates a lot of stress and may even prevent people from going to holiday gatherings for that reason.

And people with chronic pain or fatigue, they have to really kind of measure out how much effort they have to put in. They have to really plan their trip well ahead of time so they know, "Okay, it's gonna take me this much time to get from point A to point B. I'm going to need to rest for several hours after that before I can do the next leg of the trip."

So those are all kinds of things that most of us don't even think about in our daily lives. And much less during travel.

People with low vision and who are blind, they may have a guide dog. They still can't read a lot of signs.

I'll mention, too, because during the holidays, a lot of people travel by air. And for people with mobility issues who use wheelchairs, the reality is for them traveling by air is dangerous. People get dropped by personnel, mishandled going into the airplane, their wheelchairs get damaged. Fortunately, there's work being done to ultimately try to get people who use wheelchairs to be on the airplane in their wheelchair.

In terms of local trips — perhaps visiting friends and family just in the state to celebrate some winter holidays — what does accessible travel look like? What kind of planning is needed just for going over the river and through the woods?

In our area, our region, accessibility in small towns is always a problem.

I mean, typically, people going to visit family and friends, hopefully they've all sorted out any accessibility issues around those kinds of things. But even if people want to go out to eat, there's so many restaurants and other places like that aren't accessible.

One of the things we see, especially in the winter time, is people traveling with people, so they they want to park in a park-and-ride and travel with somebody else. Right now we don't have a lot of snow, so that's helpful. But a lot of times the snow gets piled up in the accessible parking space or the extra area around the accessible parking space to make it accessible. So that's another barrier that happens not only in Vermont, that happens in a lot of places, wherever there's snow.

It's just really trying to raise everybody's consciousness and awareness so that people are more cognizant of those kinds of needs.

How can people who are non-disabled make their homes more accessible to loved ones with disabilities?

Just really be aware and ask that person. Don't make assumptions about what that person needs or doesn't need. Ask that person, "What is it that I can do to make this work better for you to take away some of these barriers?"

If there's only one step, it may be fairly easy to make, create or put in a temporary ramp that isn't very long to create access. Or when you're giving directions to somebody, they're saying, "Where's the bathroom?" You say, "Oh, it's over there!" Well, a blind person doesn't know where "over there" is. So you really need to be really specific. It really is just kind of putting yourself in that person's shoes.

I'm wondering what work still needs to be done to ensure some public spaces, some favorite Vermont destinations, are fully inclusive for people with disabilities. What needs to be done either in terms of services or accommodations?

Equity is a big topic. And so when you're looking at equity, not only perhaps starting from a basis of racial equity, then you can also at the same time look at equity across the board, so disability equity.

For organizations, not only making sure their physical space is accessible, but also making sure they have policies and procedures that are in place so that they're not creating barriers for people with disabilities or other people who may have been discriminated against in the past.

And there's a lot of that work being done and [Vermont Center for Independent Living] helped do some of that work.

Any person, any organization, any business, any government entity who wants information or assistance on how to be more inclusive, or how to make their spaces or programs more accessible, I encourage them to call. We're more than willing to help because that's what it's all about: taking down the barriers so people can live equally like everybody else.

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