A world of travel adventure is opening up to children with disabilities


March 20, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Fourteen-year-old Wilson Buswell has braved the Hawaiian surf, skied the Colorado Rockies, rafted down a Utah river and toured the United States by car. The fact that Wilson uses a wheelchair -- he can't sit up unaided or use his hands much -- hasn't kept his family at home.

"We've always thought Wilson should have the same kind of adventures as our other two kids," explains Barbara Buswell, who lives in Colorado Springs and is director of a statewide Colorado support program for families of children with disabilities. "That's how you learn about life. I don't want to limit Wilson because he happened to lose oxygen at birth and has cerebral palsy."

That's why the Buswells have dragged Wilson's wheelchair over the sand, hauled it up hills, down rivers and through strange cities. "The night before I leave I always think I'm crazy," says Ms. Buswell.

"Everything is a little harder," says Gail Flanagan, who is traveling widely from her Massachusetts home this year with her teen-age daughter, Colleen, a youth spokeswoman for the National Easter Seal Society. "But you can still do it."

Those with disabilities have never been so active -- or so visible. ,, One out of every four of us knows someone with a disability, according to Easter Seals. And nearly 4 million American children have a disability of some kind, according to a report from the federal Census Bureau. The March of Dimes reports that 150,000 children are born each year with birth defects.

It used to be that many of these families stayed home because travel was so difficult. Wheelchairs wouldn't fit in hotel bathrooms. High curbs made city strolls miserable. Restaurants turned them away. Airline attendants grumbled at their presence.

But thanks to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (which mandates accessibility) and a generation of determined parents, more families than ever are taking to the road, toting wheelchairs and crutches and medicines as they camp, ski, head to resorts and hotels.

"People are more than willing to accommodate you if you explain what you need," says Joan Stoddard, who is from Orange County, Calif., and has been all over the country with her disabled son, Troy, now a 22-year-old college student. Proudly, she reports Troy has become such an adept traveler that he is going on his first solo trip with his brother -- to a baseball spring training camp in Arizona.

"It's more than just the law. It's a real change in attitude. The public is much more welcoming now," says Stanley Klein, a psychologist and editor of Exceptional Parent Magazine. The magazine is devoting much of its April issue to travel. Mr. Klein's tip for travel with a disabled family member: Contact the National Parent Network on Disabilities -- (703) 684-6763 -- for the name of a local parents' group in the area you're visiting. You'll be able to get advice on just about anything -- from baby-sitters to specially equipped playgrounds.

"Call ahead," urges Mr. Klein, stressing that good planning -- and asking lots of questions -- is key to a successful trip. (For information about the monthly magazine or to order a $20 national directory of accessible motels and hotels, call [800] E-PARENT.)

The good news is that there have never been more options for families. Disney World publishes a guide for disabled guests; call (407) 824-4321. One rapidly growing company, Wheelers Accessible Van Rental, provides vans across the country; call (800) 456-1371.

Most significant are the new opportunities for outdoor adventures.

"There are now hundreds of outdoor recreation activities for these children and their families to do together," notes Ed Harrison, a spokesman for National Handicapped Sports; call (301) 217-0960.

Take the granddaddy of them all, the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo. The program began nearly 25 years ago to provide recreation for some children with leg amputations. It now serves 3,000 disabled skiers each winter -- 60 percent of them kids, explains founder and director Hal

O'Leary. In California, the Tahoe Handicapped Ski School also offers programs winter and summer; call (916) 989-0402.

The summer Winter Park program provides everything from wheelchair-accessible camping to mountain biking and rock climbing for the blind; call (303) 726-5514.

"It makes them realize they're not limited, and that carries over to all parts of their lives," Mr. O'Leary says.

"Skiing has given Allison a lot of self-esteem," agrees Diane Jones. In fact, she adds, 9-year-old Allison, an amputee, has become such an adept skier at Winter Park that she leaves the rest of the family in her wake on the slopes.

For families that prefer less organized forays to the wilderness, there are the national parks. Many now have at least one trail accessible to those with disabilities and accessibility is improving all of the time, says Wendy Roth and Michael Tompane, co-authors of the "Easy Access to National Parks" (The Sierra Club, $16). They are working with the National Parks Foundation and groups of volunteers to improve accessibility. "There's a long way to go," says Mr. Tompane.

That's what parents of disabled children say, too. Despite the law, many places still aren't accessible.

As for Barbara Buswell, she's heartened by the success of her family's travels. "The world's a pretty good place," she says. "And that gives me hope that Wilson can still have adventures when he's grown up."

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