When nondisabled people plan a vacation, it’s easy to nail down the true cost of the trip — they book a flight, hotel and rental car, then set aside money for meals, activities and souvenirs. It’s not that simple for people with disabilities whose accessibility requirements often lead to additional costs. The “disability surcharge” on travel adds up, making that dream vacation more expensive and putting many destinations out of reach.

In this article, I take a look at seven reasons why travel is more expensive for disabled people — and reflect on how destinations, businesses and disabled people can work to reduce the negative impacts associated with this disability surcharge.

Most cities lack wheelchair taxis or accessible rideshare

Need an accessible cab ride from the airport, to your hotel, or out to dinner? You might have a better shot at winning the lottery.

Most cities in America do not have wheelchair accessible taxis — including two cities I have called home… Gainesville, Florida and St. Louis, Missouri. In these cities, if you need an accessible ride to get somewhere public transit doesn’t go or at a time outside (the oftentimes limited) public transit service hours, you will need to contact a non-emergency medical transportation service.

Where a taxi or Uber might cost nondisabled people $20, non-emergency medical transportation companies could charge ten times that. Wheelchair users are routinely paying $400 for round-trip journeys across town — that’s one heck of a disability surcharge!

Though some cities like New York City have mandated accessible taxi fleets, the availability of wheelchair taxis is decreasing nationwide. Even as rideshare operators continue to expand their market share, there are only 12 U.S. cities with wheelchair accessible Uber of Lyft — all of which fail to provide equivalent service to disabled riders.

RELATED: Read about the time I slept outside of a gas station because I couldn’t get a wheelchair accessible taxi in Jacksonville, Florida.

Budget hotels are an accessibility minefield

Low-cost Days Inn budget hotel.

For travelers with a smaller budget, hotels like Days Inn and Super 8 often provide good value — that is, unless you have a disability. In 2018, I carried out a study to determine whether lower-priced hotels are accessible to disabled guests. The result was alarming, with major ADA violations in 87% of budget hotels.

Travelers shouldn’t have to sacrifice accessibility for a cheap room rate — the ADA design requirements for hotels apply to every hotel, no matter its price point or star rating.

In the course of my study, I also uncovered what I referred to as a ‘disability tax’ on ADA accessible hotel rooms. Some properties were caught charging more for rooms with accessibility features, a clear violation of federal law. Discriminatory surcharge would have been a more appropriate term to describe that illegal practice.

Public transport is not fully accessible

Wheelchair accessible public transportation in Rio de Janeiro.

While the accessibility of public transit is increasing over time, many major cities still lack fully accessible transit systems. In New York City, just 25% of subway stations are wheelchair accessible. Accessibility barriers are present in ground-level transit as well, in the form of inaccessible street cars (San Francisco) and inaccessible bus stops (too many cities to count).

Poorly maintained sidewalks, sidewalks without curb ramps, and areas without sidewalk coverage also limit the mobility of wheelchair users and other people with disabilities.

When public transport is inaccessible, disabled people are left unable to travel or must turn to more costly private transportation options — this adds significant cost, whether the traveler faces the barrier at home or in another city.

Many disabled people must buy or rent specialized medical equipment to travel

Mobile patient lift at Scandic Rubinen Hotel.
Mobile patient lift at Scandic Rubinen Hotel. | Photo courtesy Scandic Hotels.

Many disabled travelers rely on specialized medical and mobility equipment at home, and need the same when traveling. Such items include rolling shower wheelchairs and portable transfer hoists for travel.

While there is one hotel chain in Europe that provides Hoyer lifts and a handful of Las Vegas hotels with ceiling track hoists, few hotels provide all of the tools that disabled travelers need for an accessible stay. Purchasing travel-ready equipment or renting it at the destination increases the cost of travel and, depending on the types of equipment necessary, those costs may be substantial.

Airplanes are not wheelchair accessible, adding significant financial risk to the equation

Permobil F3 power wheelchair with a bent wheel base, missing drive wheel and torn seat back and cushion.

According to my recent analysis of 2023 airline wheelchair damage statistics, the 10 largest U.S. air carriers mishandled or damaged more than 7,600 wheelchairs during the first 8 months of 2023. While the frequency of wheelchair damage is statistically low, with an industry average of 1.40%, that still equates to 31 mishandled wheelchairs per day — 31 travelers whose plans may be disrupted by a wheelchair that is delayed, damaged or destroyed.

Every so often, I hear from a Wheelchair Travel reader who was unable to enjoy their vacation because their mobility device had been lost or broken en route to the destination. They may be unable to attend a concert or a sporting event they purchased tickets for or, as one reader shared recently, unable to set off on their long-awaited cruise.

While airlines are required to repair or replace damaged wheelchairs, they are not required to reimburse travelers for costs incurred as a result of the incident. While these circumstances are of course rare, disabled travelers are expected to bear the risk of a financial burden that nondisabled people would not otherwise face. Until a wheelchair space for airplanes is widely available or there are changes in federal regulation concerning airline liability, disabled airline passengers will continue to risk financial loss each time they fly.

Many disabled people require the support of a care assistant

When I attended the Australian Open in Melbourne earlier this year, I was able to reserve a second ticket free of charge for my personal care assistant. When I visited the Louvre in Paris, France, not only did I receive complimentary admission for myself, but also for my travel companion. In Canada, airlines are required to provide a complimentary ticket for caregivers under the country’s one-person-one-fare policy.

These exceptions are rare, however, and in the majority of cases (including in the United States), disabled travelers must pay not only for themselves, but also for their caregiver — on airplanes, at sporting events, in museums, and just about anywhere else that collects admission fees.

John with his sister at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
John with his sister at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, January 2014.

During my first trip as a wheelchair user (from Florida to California), I needed the support of someone else — my care attendant in that case was my sister, who helped me with everything from transfers to getting dressed. I had to pay for two airline tickets (shame we aren’t Canadians!), two football game tickets, two public transit fares and two museum passes.

Laughing through the tears of all that extra expense, there was an irony — we went to rival universities, and the purpose of the trip was to see my college football team win the national championship game (her team wasn’t bowl eligible, finishing the season with a 4-8 record).

Businesses that fail to provide equal access (and violate the ADA) don’t always respond in the right way

Rules for ADA Accessible Hotel Shuttles

When a disabled person experiences harm as a result of an ADA violation, you’d think the business would bend over backwards to make things right. That isn’t always the case.

The easiest way for me to illustrate this is through hotel shuttles. The Department of Justice has laid out very clear regulations for ADA accessible hotel shuttles, yet few hotels comply. On countless occasions, I’ve been left at the airport curb when a hotel lacks an accessible shuttle — forced to figure it out myself, and sometimes left responsible for the subsequent wheelchair taxi fare or the cost of a room at another hotel that can accommodate me.

Ensuring equity in the lives of disabled people requires a commitment to equal access everywhere at all levels

“Equal access everywhere.” That’s the belief that drives my advocacy. I put the slogan on a t-shirt and a hoodie. There are extended sizes too. It’s a phrase that encapsulates the world I want to live in. The world I want for all of us.

We need a commitment to equal access at all levels of government, corporations, small businesses and non-profit organizations. Leaders must ask, “where are there barriers to accessibility that need to be removed?” Employees who observe barriers must raise them to management. Consumers, especially those with disabilities, should report inaccessibility to both businesses and government. Once identified, leaders should engage with experts and remove them as quickly as possible.

If we fail to prioritize equal access and neglect to remediate barriers that prevent disabled people from experiencing the full enjoyment of public spaces, goods and services, inequity will persist. Disabled people will continue to unfairly bear the personal and financial costs of an inaccessible world — and we’ll fall far short of our goal to be an inclusive society. Let’s do better by committing to #EqualAccessEverywhere… now.

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