Preparing Students with Disabilities for International Travel: International Travel Is a Wonderful Way to Practice Independent Living Skills as Well as Enhance a Person with a Disability's Quality of Life. with a Little Forethought and Practice, International Travel Can Be a Seamless Experience That Can Lead to a Life Time of Great Memories and Stories of Adventure

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Why should parents encourage their children to travel internationally? At first blush it might seem like a frivolous activity. However, preparing a child with a disability to travel internationally reinforces a whole host of skills.

International travel reinforces organizational skills, executive functioning skills, flexibility, and fosters a sense of independence as well as increases the quality of life of a person with a disability. It also provides opportunities to try new languages, foods, and skills such as converting currency or bargaining over prices when shopping for souvenirs.

The educational opportunities are endless. Depending upon the focus of a particular trip, the students may be learning about art, history, architecture, geology, ecology, biology, astronomy etc. The trips may also expose them to new adventures that they might not be exposed to if they were traveling with their family. These adventures can include activities such as zip-lining through rain forest canopies, outrigger canoeing, surfing, snorkeling through caves, exploring castles, kayaking through the jungle, hiking up volcanoes, jumping into cenotes, biking along ancient Mayan roads and climbing pyramids. The sense of accomplishment the students feel after engaging in these activities is immeasurable. They not only surprise their parents when they tell them of their accomplishments, but they surprise themselves. A common refrain is "I didn't think I could do it."

The first step in preparing a student with a disability to travel internationally is to obtain a passport. U.S. citizens can check with their local post office regarding the location of the nearest passport processing center. Alternatively, parents can go on-line to the U.S. Passports & International Travel web site which is sponsored by the U.S. State Department to find out how to obtain a passport. The site also contains helpful tips concerning traveling abroad and specific information regarding your student's destination. Simply type in into your browser to reach the website. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss with your son or daughter the importance of protecting his or her pass-port. We tell our students they can lose everything else, "but do not lose your passport!" Part of the discussion should include how to protect the passport (i.e. never put the passport in your luggage; always carry it in a passport wallet that can be worn under clothing along with some cash; use hotel safes when staying more than one night in a location; and keeping a photocopy of the passport information in a separate location like a carry-on bag in the event the passport is lost or stolen).

Next, a decision needs to be made regarding a destination and a travel group to join. Going with established travel programs is probably the safest way to travel. Many of these programs have been operating for years and know the locales quite well. They will also have an extensive network of local tour guides who are extremely knowledgeable. A part of that decision making process will also require parents and their children to make a conscious decision as to whether or not to travel with a group that caters to special needs students and travelers. If you do decide to send your student with a group that does not specifically cater to special needs individuals, then ask how they might accommodate your child with his or her specific special needs. This is particularly important for travelers with mobility issues. Many countries do not have laws similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which requires equal access to facilities. If your child attended a special needs camp, then inquire with them to see if they have a travel program for older campers. Summit Camp in Honesdale, PA offers multiple travel trips domestically and internationally each summer for their teenage campers with special needs. Transition programs like New York Institute of Technology Introduction to Independence (I to I) and Vocational Independence Programs (VIP) offer annual international trips to their students and alumni during the break between semesters.

Once a destination is selected and the time of year for the travel is determined, then a discussion concerning packing is essential. For destinations closer to the equator, the type of clothing to bring will be fairly consistent regardless of the season. However, rain gear may be necessary if traveling during the rainy season. One other fact to keep in mind is that destinations south of the equator will have their seasons exactly opposite of the seasons in the northern hemisphere. A major mistake most first time travelers make is that they pack too much clothing. A rule of thumb should be --"if you cannot carry it, then you have packed too much." With group travel, one cannot assume that someone else will carry your student's bags. Believe it or not a 10- to 12- day trip can be accomplished with clothing that will fit simply in a large backpack and a personal carry-on item, both of which can be stored inside the airplane cabin. The student will need to have sufficient core muscle strength to carry an over-night sized camping backpack which can be found on-line at outdoor outfitter websites like that of L.L. Bean.[TM] For those students without sufficient core muscle strength to carry a backpack, a rolling carry-on bag will suffice.

The trick is to bring clothing that one can easily mix and match, as well as hand wash and dry in a hotel sink. For winter travel, layers are critical to keeping warm. There are a number of companies that make base layer clothing for a wide range of weather conditions. Therma-silk[TM] manufactures long underwear that can be hand washed in a sink and dried overnight. For those that can tolerate wool, wool socks and sweaters are great choices for warmth. Wool has the ability to continue to insulate a body even when it is wet. Cotton, on the other hand, does not retain its insulating ability when wet. Fleece and down clothing are suitable alternatives for individuals who cannot tolerate wool. However, these materials are less effective in keeping the body warm while wet. Water proof boots will be critical for travel in snowy or rainy conditions. A back up pair of dry shoes will be worth the additional weight if the primary boots become soaked. For tropical or summer weather, it is much easier to pack lightly. Ex-Officio[TM] makes an entire line of wash and wear travel clothing. This includes underwear, socks, cargo pants with zip-off legs that easily convert into shorts, and shirts with sleeves that button up in place, as well as extra pockets. When traveling in warmer climates, bug spray, sun screen and hats are essential gear to pack. Closed toe shoes, as well as comfortable sandals, should be a part of the packing list. The final item that is worth packing is a microfiber camping towel. These towels are incredibly small, light-weight, and super absorbent. They can be used to not only dry off after a swim or getting caught in the rain, but they can also be used to wring out any laundry that the traveler has washed in the sink.


Practicing the washing, wringing out and drying techniques multiple times before the trip will help decrease the traveler's anxiety and increase his or her confidence. It is also a great time to rein-force the importance of good personal hygiene and set up a schedule for the hygiene routine. These might be different than the student's normal routine. They also might be more frequent. When traveling in tropical climates and engaging in physical activities, like swimming in the ocean, a student might be showering multiple times a day.

Group travel requires a student to be able to get up on their own and be ready to have a meal, or get on a tour bus to see a site. Practicing setting an alarm clock or smart phone also will make the travel easier. Traveling in different time zones can be confusing. Showing a student how to change the time to the local time will be helpful, not only for being on time for meals and bus departures, but also with medication management. Traveling to a different time zone can be disorienting, so the student who takes medications may need reminders or prompts programmed into his or her smart phone. Or they may simply need to be told to take their medication with their meals, whenever their meals are during the trip.

Checking with your cell phone provider regarding international calling and data plans prior to travel is critical to avoiding exorbitant phone bills. Some plans charge roaming fees that are extremely costly. Check to see if they have coverage and an international plan that you can purchase for the trip. If this is not possible, then inquire about having your son or daughter purchasing a local SIM card or disposable phone for the trip. If either of these alternatives are not an option, then ask your tour operator about purchasing calling cards in the country of origin. Generally, phone cards purchased in the U.S, do not work overseas. Another option is using voice over internet protocol (VoIP). These services are free, but require the user to have access to WiFi. Two popular services are Skype[TM] and Viber[TM]. Both applications provide free texting. Skype[TM] allows users to also engage in video conferencing. Users of the iPhone[TM] can use Facetime[TM] to accomplish the same result.


As a part of the preparation for international travel, the traveler may also want to explore applications for the Smart phone to help navigate, translate and convert currency. Many of these applications are free. For example, tourists traveling to Paris can download a map of the Metro System. Most major metropolitan areas will have free maps of the public transportation system. Travelers should learn basic phrases in the local language such as "Please," "Thank you," "You are welcome," and " Where is the restroom?" before they reach their destination. Applications like Talking Translator[TM] can not only provide text translation to and from a language into English (or any other language), but also can provide audio out-put so the user can hear how to pronounce the word or phrase correctly. By going to the Google Play Store[TM] or the Apple equivalent, the traveler can also locate a number of free currency conversion applications to help with the conversion of U.S. dollars to the local currency. While searching the stores for free applications, it is also helpful to identify an application to help the traveler calculate tips, tax, and cost per person if he or she is dining with a group of people. In some countries, providing separate checks is frowned upon and disagreements can ensue among traveling companions over splitting a check. This is a skill worth practicing well in advance of the actual trip.

Even for the most seasoned traveler, dealing with airport security can be nerve wracking. Reviewing the procedure and process can alleviate confusion and expedite the process. Selecting clothing that that is not only comfortable, but easy to remove can make the security screening less onerous. Informing the traveler that they will need remove jackets, shoes, belts and all metal items from his or her body may lead to a decision of what not to wear on the travel day. Placing these items as well as laptops, cell phones, loose change, and travel sized toiletries in a plastic bin and putting it through the x-ray device is expected and an normal part of the procedure.

What should be reviewed is how to man-age the boarding pass and passport when going through security. These items should be kept with the traveler at all times and plainly visible in his or her hands when passing through the x-ray machines. Although in the U.S. this practice is not as frequent anymore, internationally three questions are commonly asked of travelers that are confusing for students with disabilities who are very literal and concrete in their understanding of the world. Those questions are: (1) Have you packed this bag yourself? (2) Has anyone given you any-thing to put in your bag? (3) Has this bag been in your sight at all times? Some of our students have answered "No." "Yes," and "No"--with no further explanation--much to the alarm of the security personnel. When questioned more carefully, the student explained that his mom helped him pack and she gave him everything to put in the suitcase. The suitcase he explained had not been in his sight at all times because it was in the trunk of the family's car while driving to the airport. Rehearsing answers to these questions can save time and awkward situations.

International travel is a wonderful way to practice independent living skills as well as enhance a person with a disability's quality of life. There are a wide range of education-al benefits to travel and trips can be tailor-made to a group's interests. With a little forethought and practice, international travel can be a seamless experience that can lead to a life time of great memories and stories of adventure.


Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program. Dr. VanBergeijk also administers Introduction to Independence (I to I), a seven week summer college preview program for students ages 16 and up. Dr. VanBergeijk accompanies all of the international training trips with his students and alumni.