America the Accessible

Travel Blog  •  Jenna Schnuer  •  04.23.09 | 3:48 PM ET

Photo by Rick McCharles via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Fifteen years ago, when nobody else was really servicing the community, writer Candy Harrington ditched traditional travel writing and launched Emerging Horizons, a travel magazine for people with disabilities.

“Back then most of my friends and colleagues thought I was a few fries short of a happy meal for making such a drastic change,” says Harrington. Silly colleagues. Other travel magazines come and go but Emerging Horizons is still running strong, and Harrington also writes books, articles for magazines and websites, and a blog on the subject.

We checked in with her to find out about the state of accessible travel in America—and some of her favorite accessible travel adventures around the 50.

OK, stupid question but how do you define accessible travel?

Not stupid at all, as there are many definitions. Accessible travel is the short “catch all” phrase for what I cover. More succinctly, I cover travel for people with mobility disabilities—from slow walkers to wheelchair-users.

What’s the current state of accessible travel in the United States? Does the American tourism industry do enough? What can they improve on?

Well if you look at things over the long term, I think access in general has greatly improved over the past 20 years. I remember talking to a friend who uses a power wheelchair and back then the only way he could get to the airport was in an ambulance. Great way to start a vacation, eh?

Well things have changed today. Our population is aging and more and more people want to travel. So although our access laws have mandated access, I think the market has also encouraged voluntary changes from tourism providers. Bottom line is, they want as much business as they can get and if making a few simple adaptations will get it, then they are happy to do it. I’m seeing improved accessibility more as a marketing edge rather than a mandate today.

Could we use improvement? Sure. I believe the weak point is the availability of affordable and accessible public transportation. For example if you want to rent a standard car at your destination you can do that for say $35 per day if you shop around. If you need an accessible van, the going rate is $100 per day. It’s hard to fault the providers for the high cost, because the insurance and equipment is very expensive. Still, folks need an affordable way to get around at their destination. So more accessible taxis would be great. And more accessible airport transportation. Although the latter is improving more than the former.

What are some of the most accessible travel-friendly towns or cities in the United States?

I’m going to have to put Las Vegas at the top of the list, because most of the tourism providers there have gone above and beyond the minimum access requirements. They want to make sure that everyone can come, enjoy their casinos and spend their money.  For example, most of the hotels on the strip have more than the minimum number of accessible rooms; and a few hotels
(Treasure Island, The Mirage) have even installed ceiling track lifts in their “high needs accessible rooms.” You can easily get an accessible taxi at the airport, which is great.

Chicago also gets high marks from me, not only because of their physical access but because of the great access guide that they’ve put out. It’s available online and it includes access details of hotels, attractions and public transportation in Chicago. It’s a great resource.
Are there are any types of travel in the U.S. that have surprised you with how accessible they are?

At this point, I have to say that you can make just about anything accessible; although some adaptations take a little more time, effort and money than others.

One thing that really made me go wow are the accessible houseboats that Forever Resorts manufactures. Not only do they have an accessible bathroom with a roll-in shower, but they also have an elevator to the top deck. We just tried one out on Lake Mead and we’re set to test drive another one on Lake Powell in a few days.

I’ve also been wowed by the accessible tidepools at Yaquina Head up in Oregon. You can just roll right down to the tidepools at low tide. It’s so cool. And if you want to stay overnight, there are accessible yurts located nearby, just south of Waldport at Beachside State Park.

And the accessible treehouse at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia is awesome. It’s huge, and again, you can just roll your wheelchair right up into it.

And just last week, I stumbled across a rafting outfitter that is able to accommodate wheelchairs on their Colorado River day trips. Black Canyon Adventures is based outside of Las Vegas, and they have four-hour trips starting just below the Hoover Dam. It’s a nice easy float and because of the design of the raft, you can just roll a wheelchair right down the center aisle. And they’ve also installed a great ramp an their put-in/take-out spot. It’s a fun trip and seeing the Hoover Dam from below is awesome. 

Thanks, Candy.

Jenna Schnuer

Freelancer Jenna Schnuer writes about travel, food, culture, books, and life's quirky bits (and bites) for publications including American Way, National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, and many others. She also co-writes Flyover America, a site filled with quieter stories from around the U.S. Send Jenna an email or, if you're so inclined, follow her on Twitter.

7 Comments for America the Accessible

Julia Hollenbeck 04.24.09 | 12:36 PM ET

A colleague provided your web URL to me and I am compelled to write after reading your opening article. Access does not appear to lack with adventures, places of interest, and many other things to do or see, but it certainly does lack with hotel accommodations. The old, “Hit the road, Jack”, and “See America” (as in the USA) may well find the accessible hotel room for an overnight stay, so terribly inaccessible, a PWD could end up camping in their vehicle at a State Rest Area with better accommodations.

The hotel systems have fallen so far behind with meeting compliance under the ADA that the USDOJ cannot even keep up with the complaints and it is not uncommon to find a complaint simply rubber stamped and forwarded to the managing attorney of the franchise. Even with hotels meeting compliance with the ADA, abuse by persons without disabilities using rooms intended for persons requiring roll-in showers is absurd. I would like to know if you have any recommendations for hotel accommodations for PWD “hitting the road” and traveling throughout North America.

Thanking you kindly - and wheeling…

Adena 04.24.09 | 12:39 PM ET

Ever heard of Craig Grimes and Accessible Travel? He is amazing innovative and a leader in the new world of handicap accessible traveling… Check out my blog entry, and the link to his site, here:

Julia Hollenbeck 04.24.09 | 12:58 PM ET

Thank you for responding; I looked at the website but did not see anything about hotel accommodations for travel within North America (USA). BTW - if I were had a “handicap”, I would be on a course playing golf or engaged in some other sporting activity. I am a person with disabilities requiring the use of a power wheelchair and founded a non-profit organization (actually based on travel in the beginning) over ten years ago. The URL is and contains hundreds of articles and thousands of photos.

Jenna Schnuer 04.24.09 | 10:48 PM ET

Hi Julia,

Thanks for writing. One good start is on Candy’s website—I’m pretty sure she has a database of places for best accommodations. And I’ll ask around to see if anybody else I know has some suggestions for you.

Have a great weekend,

Julia Hollenbeck 04.25.09 | 12:24 AM ET

Dear Jenna,

I’m burning midnight oil completing late assignments - sorry for delay with responding to you. I’ll be glad to look at Candy’s website; do you have the URL? I am very new to this particular site and have not had time to thoroughly review it in depth. I am terribly disgruntled with InterContinental Hotel properties as well as Marriott; one chief complaint is when traveling with a companion and no second bed. This is easy enough to resolve with an adjoining room at no charge, but I cannot resolve the bathtub or roll-in shower issues, once being told they exist. Arrgh! Worse, is the “no smoking” rule in accessible rooms; is that discrimination or what - when properties provide smoking rooms to persons without disabilities.  Our organization has spent years and tons of money advocating for accessible lodging facilities across the USA, bringing as many as 90-percent into compliance over the past several years. The kicker is many hotels close, change names, new ones are built or old ones sold to another franchise. It just seems to go on and on with no resolution and I am too old to camp. (Smile) Thanks for responding and have a beautiful weekend!

Jenna Schnuer 04.25.09 | 12:28 AM ET

Here’s her site: Emergina Horizons— I interviewed her for the piece above—but her site is all about accessible travel.

Julia Hollenbeck 04.25.09 | 8:50 AM ET

Morning Jenna,

I checked out Candy’s site and found it to be great for vacation travel resources, so good in fact, I will send it on to one of our members who is seeking a hide-a-way for August. To be honest with you, I did not find it much help for me - my travel is typically work related; seldom time for sightseeing along the way and often driving a thousand miles before reaching final destination. The best resources I’ve found (so far) are hours spent on the telephone - asking the same proverbial questions and making certain reservation operations call the hotels. At least this affords me the ability to obtain a walk-through to another property if the one booked is not accessible, but it’s a hard way to go and very time consuming. (I’ve also got “stuck” with the final result.) Accessible hotels are far and few between along major highways and within large cities - very frustrating. I’ve actually resorted to keeping a log of hotels meeting expectations, but my travel is not always on the same route and that’s when I run into trouble.

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