An accessible guide for disabled tourists Carroll woman publishes newsletter to help ease travel

August 20, 1996|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

The rooms in the hotel in Bali were carefully planned to accommodate disabled guests. But the walkways outside were paved with cobblestones, guaranteed to produce a teeth-rattling ride in a wheelchair.

The owners of a New England bed-and-breakfast inn installed a bathroom with a roll-in shower, much easier than a bathtub for a disabled person to use. But the bed was too high to align next to a wheelchair.

"They tried so hard, but they didn't get it right," recalled Beverly Nelson, who publishes a newsletter for disabled travelers from her home near New Windsor.

Nelson, 58, a free-lance travel writer who has multiple sclerosis, could have helped the Bali hotel and the New England inn better accommodate the disabled.

As a world traveler, Nelson, who primarily uses a wheelchair or scooter, has gained considerable expertise. She sees accessibility features that even the best-intentioned people on two feet miss.

Her newsletter, The Very Special Traveler, grew from her experience with airlines, cruise lines and hotels. Many of her articles cover accessibility features of hotels, museums and restaurants as well as the helpfulness, or lack of it, of airline and hotel employees.

Describing a 1995 trip to Hong Kong, Nelson wrote: "The bathroom was festooned with grab bars, but the tub had only a fixed shower head."

She approached the hotel's director of communications, who impressed her by his promise to implement her suggestions: change to hand-held shower heads and add transfer benches for TC bathtubs.

American travel agents are becoming more aware of disability issues, said David Love, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents.

"The industry is really trying hard -- airlines, hotels, car rental companies -- because (a) it's the right thing to do, and (b) it's good business," he said.

Nelson, who has written for such publications as National Geographic and Paraplegia News, began publishing her newsletter in 1992.

Today, hotel and motel managers consult her about how to make rooms accessible to the disabled. She is scheduled to address the American Society of Travel Agents at a conference this fall.

Travel experts say Nelson is filling a niche in the market. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the disabled population is 49 million. With aging baby boomers, travel agents foresee an increase in people who want to travel but who face restrictions.

Nelson describes herself as "always a vagabond," although, at age 42, she had to begin learning how to travel with a disability.

She had numbness in her legs on and off for several years before she was diagnosed in 1980 with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that produces, among other afflictions, numbness or paralysis in arms or legs.

A steroid put Nelson back on her feet and she returned to her job as a self-employed conference organizer. She spent three months organizing a minority business conference in Helena, Ark. She later received the Arkansas Traveler Award from then-Gov. Bill Clinton for her community work in Helena.

With her disability, Nelson has learned to plan. She calls hotels, tourist bureaus and businesses to explain her accessibility needs.

She has braved the Osaka subway, ridden in a tiny boat to see the grotto at Capri and submitted to being carried up three flights of stone steps to reach a restaurant in Bali.

Nelson travels with her husband, Stewart B. Nelson, an oceanographer.

Edna Cook, who works for Flying Wheels, an agency in Owatonna, Minn., that specializes in wheelchair travel, said she sees "more independence in travelers."

Cook credits cruise lines for opening the world to many disabled travelers. Hotels lag behind cruise ships in such service, but are coming to terms with the idea that airport shuttles, for example, "need to accommodate various travelers."

Nelson, who has two adult children, publishes her newsletter bimonthly and claims a circulation of 2,000. She accepts no advertising because she wants to be able to evaluate accommodations freely.

The newsletter is a labor of love, Nelson said. A yearly subscription costs $25. She says her reward comes from letters, such as the one from a subscriber who visited California's Napa Valley after reading about Nelson's trip there.

To subscribe to the newsletter, send name and address and $25 to The Very Special Traveler, P.O. Box 756, New Windsor, Md. 21776.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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