We Tried the Top Apps for Travelers with Disabilities. Here’s What We Found

accessiblego thrillist article

By Meg St-Esprit at Thrillist

Those first few moments in a new destination are exhilarating. The fresh sights, scents, sounds, come together to create that elusive high avid travelers chase. But for travelers with disabilities, the same new experiences can be overwhelming, and even limiting.

Airports are loud and often difficult to navigate for anyone, but for a neurodivergent traveler who struggles to function in chaotic environments, they can be nearly impossible. For a visually impaired traveler, the signage most people use to navigate a new destination is often unreadable. New cities are exciting, but a wheelchair user likely doesn’t know which restaurants and museums are accessible, like they would in their hometown. Calling an Uber or hailing a cab is also not always an option, as most rideshare vehicles are not wheelchair accessible. Will the hotel have a shower they get in and out of, or a place for their service animal to relieve themself? For many travelers with disabilities, each step of their journey requires careful planning and consideration.

As an avid traveler and mother to children with multiple physical and developmental disabilities, I know how much planning a vacation for a family like ours requires, and just how time consuming and frustrating it can be. A crop of apps and programs created to make travel more accessible have begun to level the playing field, though. We tested these programs in real-world settings ranging from airports to our own community to see just how they work and how they can make traveling easier for us. While there are many new apps and programs emerging constantly, we focused on those that are available in most destinations and are easy to navigate. While the tourism industry still has a long way to go to make travel more accessible, these programs are leading the charge—and have made our most recent trips a bit less fraught.

accessibleGO

For non-disabled travelers, booking a hotel is mostly about price, location, and amenities. For travelers with physical disabilities, hotels can be a nightmare. While the ADA has guidelines about accessible hotel rooms, these booking rules often do not fully apply to third-party booking sites like Priceline or Travelocity. Sometimes a traveler books an accessible room only to find it doesn’t match the online description or was even given away to a non-disabled hotel guest.

That’s where accessibleGo comes in. This platform allows travelers to filter accessibility options that extend beyond the basic “wheelchair accessible” toggle feature in most hotel booking apps. AccessibleGO allows users to search for lodging with roll-in showers, accessible swimming pools, outdoor space for service dogs, and more. The platform also takes things one step further—once a booking is made, an accessibleGO team member contacts the destination directly to assure that all accommodations are able to be met.

“Our goal here at accessibleGO is to enable travelers with disabilities to get their accessibility needs met, no matter where they are going or what their needs are so that they feel comfortable to take that trip,” says co-founder and CEO Miriam Elijas. Beyond hotel rooms, users can search for mobility rentals, rental cars with hand controls, wheelchair van rentals, and more.

Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program

While there’s no app yet, the web-based Sunflower program is growing in usage around the world. By simply requesting a free lanyard through the program, users are easily identifiable to airport staff as a traveler with an invisible disability. The bright green lanyards are decorated with sunflowers and are easily visible to TSA and airline staff. As a family that travels with several invisible disabilities, including autism, ADHD, and a joint condition that limits mobility some days but not others, we don’t always stand out as a family that may need assistance navigating the airport—but we do.

We first tested this program out at Pittsburgh International Airport, which also has a great sensory room. The TSA lines at PIT are generally not long, but we were able to take our children through a shorter line reserved for travelers with disabilities. On our return trip out of Orlando International Airport, the security lines were long and overwhelming. We knew that not all of our children would be able to manage it after a busy week. The security line marked with a sunflower symbol was much shorter, and the TSA staff took extra care with our kids and their anxiety.

Gatwick Airport in London was the first to use the sunflower lanyards in 2016, and the program has expanded across the world since. Participating locations have sunflower lanyards on site—most airports keep them at the customer service desk before security. Travelers can also request a pass via the website or by contacting their local airport ahead of their trip—and they do not need to disclose their disability to receive a pass. At this time, over 200 airports participate in countries across the globe, and a growing list of railways, museums, and theme parks are adopting the program as well. Some users report that not all airport staff seem to be versed in what the lanyard means, so continued education is needed. We do think an app would be helpful, too. The website is thorough and helpful, but since most of us travel with our phones in pockets, apps are just handier.

Be My Eyes

When I rush through an airport, my eyes glance up at the overhead signage to point me towards my gate, restrooms, or baggage claim. Once at my destination, I scan for safe walking routes. For visually impaired travelers, navigating airports, hotels, and unfamiliar destinations in general can be a challenge. Braille signage is not as common as it should be, and is only required in certain locations. With the app Be My Eyes, which is available on Apple and Android, users can scan anything from written documents to photos—and AI or a stable of volunteers will verbally interpret the information for them.

We tested it on overhead signs in a local T station as well as on sets of public stairs near our home. The AI descriptions are incredibly accurate, even noting how shadows on a photo may indicate a tree out of frame and denoting the location of handrails and cracks in the pavement. After requesting an AI response, we had the option to ask further questions to the chatbot or call a live volunteer for more input. Overall, we found the app to be well-designed and very user friendly.

TSA Cares

While most accessibility programs are private companies or nonprofits, TSA does have one solid option: TSA Cares. The Cares program is available in all US airports and exists to modify standard security and travel requirements to meet the needs of certain groups of travelers. In addition to supporting travelers with disabilities, TSA Cares also offers support to military families, families traveling with young children, and other groups who may have a difficult time traveling. Travelers can print a TSA notification card to let staff know about their needs if they do not wish to (or cannot) do so verbally.

There’s also an app called MyTSA that provides information on packing rules, wait times, and disability accommodations. There are various accommodations offered by the program. For example, the program can help travelers become exempt from removing their shoes or unpack their bags at security.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is one of many locations incorporating TSA Cares protocol into a broader goal of accessibility. The Newark airport recently joined the list of airports with sensory rooms, and had added a security line dedicated solely to screening neurodivergent travelers—the first in the country. How travelers utilize TSA Cares varies widely based on their needs, and some airports seem better at it than others. More cohesive training for TSA staff would be a great addition to the program. Contact the program to find out specifics about your needs.

Google Maps

Most travelers are familiar with Google Maps and accompanying Google services that make trips easier. But recent improvements in Google products have made Maps a perfect choice for travelers with disabilities.

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, Accessibility and Disability Inclusion Features Lead at Google Maps, is a wheelchair user himself, so he’s used his own personal experiences to make Google services more accessible. He says these updates are a game changer for travelers with accessibility needs and points to the crowdsourced accessibility information from other Maps users and the ability to create wheelchair-accessible routes as top features.

When browsing shops in a particular destination, the wheelchair icon features details like step-free entrances, accessible parking, and more. The screen reader and voice guidance features are helpful for travelers with auditory and visual impairments. The screen reader feature audibly provides information on nearby locations when the user holds their phone up to scan their surrounding area. Voice guidance in Maps, which is enabled with a toggle button in settings, provides much more detailed feedback on walking routes so that visually impaired travelers or those who have a hard time following a basic map can navigate a new location. Google Live Transcribe can turn any audio announcement or speaking person’s words into written text for travelers with auditory disabilities, too.

Roadtrippers

Planning a road trip—complete with waystations along the route—can be particularly tricky for travelers with disabilities. For those with service dogs, finding a spot where their companion can play, rest, and relieve themselves is necessary, for example. The Roadrippers app, which is available on Apple and Android, has long been a go-to for travelers choosing stops and attractions along a selected route. By choosing your route and how frequently you plan to stop for a short break or overnight, the app creates a custom itinerary that includes necessary stops like gas stations—and fun stops like the World’s Largest Corn Maze.

Updates to the platform allow travelers with disabilities to filter their searches with accessibility in mind. Once users choose the type of attraction they are interested in, they can then select the “wheelchair accessible” filter to narrow a broad list down to spots that work for them. A vast collection of reviews and feedback from other travelers can help determine if a particular attraction is a fit. I’m hopeful that future updates to the platform will increase the ability of options travelers with disabilities can search for—particularly info on the accessibility of roadside attractions.

zTrip

If we aren’t road tripping or renting a car when we travel, rideshares are a must. While our family can use any standard rideshare vehicle, some travelers with physical disabilities cannot. Unfortunately, this is an area where the main players fall short. Uber and Lyft do have accessible vehicles via the UberWAV and Lyft WAV programs, but it’s limited to a small number of cities so far. Foldable wheelchairs are allowed in standard rideshare cars—if they fit, which is a gamble.

While zTrip is not yet in every U.S city, there are more options in more locations. Wheelchair accessible vans and trained drivers are a regular part of zTrip’s business so they know how to accommodate travelers safely. Riders can hail a zTrip vehicle just like a standard taxi, though there’s no guarantee that will be an accessible vehicle. For that, rides can be booked via phone, website, or app. Hopefully zTrip expands to more cities soon so that it’s a reliable option wherever you’re headed.

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