Compassionate Care

Vacations without limits

Elijah and his family travel to destinations that can accommodate his needs.

Level up your planning to help kids with special needs experience the trip of their dreams

Traveling with kids is never easy, and traveling with children with special needs requires even more careful planning and consideration. But seeing children experience a new place, try a new activity or get the ultimate treat – meeting Mickey Mouse – can be well worth the effort. Here are some tips to make your next trip an awesome adventure.

Drew, who uses a wheelchair, and his family have gone on hikes and Disney trips.

Consider the destination

Your destination may be the most important travel decision you make. It always pays to contact the destination ahead of time to find out what it can offer in terms of accessibility. Leah, whose young son, Elijah, has been a patient of Shriners Hospitals for Children — Honolulu for most of his life, can attest that the destination makes all the difference. Leah also happens to be a flight attendant.

When the family traveled to Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on Oahu, they requested a room with a kitchen, which allowed Leah and her husband to prepare medications and special meals for Elijah. “If you’re able to get creative with your travel plans or make little upgrades to elevate your peace and experience, it’s worth it,” Leah advised. Leah said her family looks for calm environments and steers clear of areas that may be crowded or overstimulating. “Our special guy enjoys heated swimming pools, so we often look for resorts with a great pool experience.”

Drew, a patient of Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago who has transverse myelitis, a spinal cord disorder, has traveled with his family of five, including going on hikes and a Disney cruise. Drew’s mom, Liz, said it’s important not to make assumptions. “I almost took it for granted the first time [we traveled] that cruise ship cabins were automatically wheelchair accessible,” Liz said.

Shriners Hospitals has loaner programs for specialized wheelchairs.

“When I was booking the trip, they told me I needed a handicap room to fit the wheelchair through the door.”

 Families with children who use wheelchairs and want to go to the beach or take a hike through the woods can face challenges. Typical wheelchairs aren’t made for such terrain, and power chairs, in particular, can be illsuited to sand and mud. Instead of avoiding these adventures, try exploring rental options.

At Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City, a specialized wheelchair loaner program helps families go on vacation or simply explore the terrain in their hometown. Options include chairs designed especially for the beach that come in a range of sizes as well as the “free wheel,” an adaptation that essentially turns a wheelchair into a jogging stroller, making hiking something the whole family can participate in and enjoy.

“We’ve seen families making memories together at the ocean, lake and even hiking in Moab [the gateway to the Red Rocks in Utah],”said Physical Therapist Matt Lowell, MPT, manager of the hospital’s wheelchair, seating and mobility department.

A program at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Portland makes durable and recreational equipment available. It’s complimentary to all patients and includes various all-terrain wheelchairs, adaptive joggers and bikes that allow patients to explore rugged trails or sandy beaches. “This is a great way for patients to enjoy activities with their families that they may otherwise not be able to do,” said Caroline Scott, CTRS, recreational therapist at the Portland hospital. “Everyone has a right to enjoy the outdoors and all of the benefits that it offers.”

Prepare and practice

After a practice run on a plane, Juliet could fully enjoy the real trip.

Advance preparation can help kids feel more comfortable with travel. Prepare your child for what to expect on your trip, and try to rehearse some of the steps you’ll go through ahead of time.

Juliet, 11, a patient of the Portland Shriners Hospital, was able to do just that through a mock pre-flight program offered in Portland by the Autism Society of Oregon and Alaska Airlines.

Before her trip to Disneyland, Juliet entered the program, which helps people with special needs become familiar with the airport and understand what to expect on the day of the flight. Juliet went through security and check-in, boarded a plane and experienced it taxiing down the runway and returning to the gate. “After Juliet returned to the gate, she actually believed she had flown to Disneyland,” said her mother, Karen. All of the preparation paid off when Juliet was finally able to meet Mickey Mouse.

With the planning out of the way, the most important advice is to just have fun. “Prepare for the worst-case scenarios and be surprised by everything going to plan perfectly,” Leah said. “Take lots of breaths, and remember to schedule in your respite, too. Make the most of this carved-out time and investment.”