Family travel with special needs children

Encouraging special needs families to embrace travel

Travel can change a child’s outlook on the world and transform the child forever. This statement is just as true for mainstream children as it is for children with special needs—kids with developmental or physical disabilities. From a logistical perspective, however, travel is a lot more challenging for families that include children with special needs. That’s where experts such as Ida Keiper and Jesemine Jones can help. Together, the two comprise Abeon Travel, a consulting firm that specializes in helping special needs families arrange travel. After being moved to tears by chatting with them during last week’s Family Travel Association summit in Montana, I caught up with the duo to learn more about what they do and why it’s so important. Here are the highlights of our chat.

Matt Villano (MV): First off, how did the two of you meet, and what are your backgrounds?

Ida Keiper (IK): We went to college together, if you can believe that, and became best friends. I was a special education teacher at Lakewood Public School District in Lakewood, New Jersey, for 30 years; Jessi is a special education teacher in Middletown Township Public Schools in Middletown, New Jersey, and has her master’s [of social work].

MV: How did you get into travel?

Jesemine Jones (JJ): Over the years, particularly as I worked with parents of children on the autism spectrum, I realized these people were unable to travel due to issues with their kids. They told me they wished they could travel. I vowed to help them when I retired. Four or five years ago, when Ida retired, I said, ‘Why don’t’ we do this? Why don’t we help them?’

IK: When we started, we thought we would write a little pamphlet. That turned into three books. The first book is resource guide; it’s about the methodology of traveling with special needs kids. We took evidence-based strategies that we know work and then applied them to common travel concerns. We also interviewed parents of special needs kids of all levels. We asked them what they need to travel with their kids, what are their biggest concerns, and what was prohibiting them from traveling. From answers to those questions, we made a list of obstacles. Then we got to work.

MV: What were some of the concerns?

IK: Everything from having [the right] kind of lift to help a wheelchair-bound child get into bed to feeling confident that a hotel staff member is going to know how to interact with an autistic child.

JJ: I think with most special needs families there also is just a general concern of how the child will cope with travel.

MV: Why is travel so hard for families with special needs kids?

IK: The first reason is because of the special provisions you need. Not a lot of hotels, resorts and attractions that cater to kids on the autism spectrum. Then there are the logistics: Is there really going to be a wheelchair-accessible room waiting for us? It’s just a lot to think about.

JJ: Traveling with children and adults with behavioral and developmental disabilities present with additional challenges such as vacation anticipation, transitioning from one activity to another, change in daily routine, going through airport security, and conversing with different people.

MV: So how does Abeon help these families? What’s the process?

IK: The first thing we do is ask a family about their dream destination. Then we give the parents a pre-travel questionnaire. The questionnaire covers everything you could imagine: Are there any other family members in wheelchairs? Does the child have sensory issues? We ask questions like these, then we take the data, make the calls to hotels and destinations and airlines, and get booking. About a month before the departure, we send them a visual support to introduce them to the unknown. The support is a book, and it’s particularly great for kids with anxiety or sensory issues because it walks them through every single step. It includes a map of the airport, specific information about ground transportation, and pictures of where they’re going.

MV: How far out do you suggest special needs families get in touch with you for help?

IK: I’ve done it within a month, but it’s good to give me three or four months. Sometimes it’s hard to plan ahead because wheelchair-accessible rooms usually go first.

MV: And what happens once the family heads out on the trip? How do you manage that?

IK: I give them my cell number and they can call me any time. Literally, any time.

MV: In your opinion, what characterizes a special needs-friendly hotel?

IK: Every hotel must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], which deals with physical aspects of the building; things such as doorways and ramps. For a lot of hotels and attractions today, once they are ADA compliant, they’re done, because they’re within the limits of the law. Our criteria for a special needs-friendly destinations is that they go beyond ADA. They know what a person in a wheelchair needs. They have braille signage or braille menus for visually impaired kids. They have kids’ club groups with people who have been trained to deal with kids that have special needs. These little things go a long way.

MV: And what questions should special needs families ask going into this process?

JJ: The questions always depend on the disability. Are there handgrips in the bathroom? Is it a roll-in shower? Is there a hospital nearby? Is there a medical supply company nearby (to fix wheelchair when it breaks)? Are there large-print menus? Are there visual alarms for hearing impaired? Are there video phone? Are there TDY phones? You can see, there are dozens of questions you could ask. We try and answer as many of them as we possibly can.

MV: What have been some of your most notable experiences working with these wonderful families?

IK: Emma [whose family is photographed at the top of this post] always sticks out as one. She’s paraplegic, nonverbal, and feeds through feeding tube. Her mom told us every time Emma saw Cinderella’s castle, she was so happy she’d smile. So her mom wanted to take her and her two siblings to see Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World, in Florida. We needed to arrange for wheelchairs, even a nurse. I think the best part of the experience was when I called Disney and asked them if I could get the nurse in for free; they responded by telling me all of them could get into the parks whenever they wanted on the trip.

MV: What would you say you’ve learned over the years?

JJ: We’ve learned that customers appreciate and recognize when a business or service provider goes the extra mile to meet their needs. The sharing of just one exceptionally positive travel experience will reach an entire community of potential travelers. Also, we’ve learned that it pays to move gradually. A lot of these kids don’t respond to change very well. The easier we can make transitions for these children and their families, the easier the transitions become.

How would you improve upon the way the travel industry embraces special needs families?

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Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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