An Inspirational Partnership Designed to Facilitate Accessible Family Travel for Those with Disabilities

An Inspirational Partnership Designed to Facilitate Accessible Family Travel for Those with Disabilities

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As the mother of three boys, one with Autism and one with Sensory Processing Disorder, travel agent Nicole Thibault, of Magical Storybook Travels, knows just how intimidating it can seem to travel with children who have disabilities or who are on the Spectrum. But Thibault also knows travel for such families is entirely possible. And furthermore, that travel is a special opportunity that should not be missed. To that end, Thibault, who is a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) and a Certified Family Travel Agent, has spent the past several years focused on creating sensory-friendly trips for families like her own.

Stephanie Sheehy, general manager of Costa Rica-based il Viaggio Travel, shares a similar passion. The mother of two, who lives and works in Costa Rica, has spent years making the Central American country a more accessible destination for travelers with disabilities of all types. She’s passionate about accessible travel and has worked tirelessly to create wheelchair friendly beaches in Costa Rica, including developing rollaway ramps and wheelchairs that can be used on sand and in the water. Sheehy also partners with local attractions in Costa Rica to ensure that her clients using wheelchairs can access transportation, restaurants, bathrooms, beaches and more.

A few years ago Thibault and Sheehy met at an FTA event and a dynamic new partnership was born, one that took Thibaults and Sheehys passions and focus to a new level. Today, the duo is working together to create Autism-friendly itineraries in Costa Rica for family travelers.

The pair recently chatted with FTA about their decision to join forces and what they hope to achieve together.

Q.Why did you two want to create this partnership? What did you feel you could accomplish together?

Nicole – Stephanie and I met at an FTA advisor forum. We would connect at those events and other FTA events and every time we would get together she would tell me all about what she’s doing in Costa Rica for travelers with physical disabilities, and to promote wheelchair accessibility for travelers.

Both of us have such big hearts and a wealth of knowledge about how to make travel possible for people who dont think it is possible. It just seemed like a natural partnership, as it was clear we had much in common, and share a similar passion for helping families travel. Its amazing that we found each other.

Stephanie – Ive been working in Costa Rica as a leader and pioneer in accessible travel. I started with a focus on physical disabilities and conditions and then expanded to include the type of sensory conditions that Nicole is focused on.

I’ve always believed that everything has to be designed not only with the help of experts but also with input from users. So for example, one of my employees is a wheelchair user, and shes also the only civil engineer in Costa Rica who specializes in accessibility. Weve worked with her since beginning to address physical conditions for travelers with disabilities. Next we started with sensory disabilities and we work with an individual who is blind. Now we are working with Nicole, she is our expert for travelers with Autism and sensory challenges.

Nicole and I are a perfect match, together we can show families with children who have Autism or who are on the Spectrum that it is possible to travel and it can be done safely.

Q. What are some of the challenges that travelers with Autism and other cognitive disabilities typically face when they travel, particularly on a trip where they have not researched and identified high- and low-sensory activities in advance? And how do you help these types of families?

Nicole- There are two or three main areas of difficulty for people with Autism when they travel. The first one is that sensory piece—the high- and low-sensory styles. Some kids are high adventure or adventure seekers, so theyre looking for faster, more high-paced activities, such as whitewater rafting or ziplining, while others are sensory defensive and therefore are looking for quieter, calmer activities, and things that dont challenge their body too much, such as a walk through a nature preserve to look for birds and sloths, a chocolate tour, or a day at the beach.

In addition, a lot of individuals with Autism have anxiety about traveling and trying something new. So, addressing that anxiety in advance of the trip with families and individuals can be a big help. I do pre-travel counseling to help with that, meeting with a family or person with Autism, to talk through some of things that are going to be happening on the trip. So, for instance, on a trip to Costa Rica, there might be white water rafting involved, so we will talk about the procedures and steps that are going to happen when you arrive at the rafting experience and go through the steps to prepare for what is going to happen. We might also watch YouTube videos together in advance, to prepare for whats going to happen in advance and decrease their anxiety level.

The third piece for this type of traveler is the food piece. A lot of people on the Spectrum are very picky eaters. Its a sensory and smell issue. So knowing food menus in advance is really important and being able to connect with someone for instance, who can say Yes there are chicken nuggets at this location.’”

Stephanie-Its also important for travel agents like Nicole to have agents on-site like myself, someone whos a local expert. Were the ones who look for these specific needs. When you have a picky eater, we know the local business owners in person, we have relationships with the local businesses and suppliers and know what types of food they serve.

We specialize in accessible travel and we work with every single disability. Maybe a traveler has Autism but also a physical condition. Maybe they need a restroom chair or they are not walkers, but the parents want to do some hikes, so we need to have special equipment to bring the child in. It is very important when planning these types of trips that you have a local expert who can help design the trip.

Q.How will you develop trips that address the types of challenges youve identified in Costa Rica?

Nicole-This June, I joined Stephanie, her husband Emilio and their two children on a 12-day cross-country trip in Costa Rica to personally experience as much of Costa Rica as possible and determine what attractions and destinations could be added to an Autism-friendly itinerary. While we experienced these attractions and destinations in Costa Rica, I was mentally putting them into two categories: low-sensory and high-sensory activities.

Now that our research trip is finished, Stephanie and I are working together to create Autism-friendly itineraries for families based on our observations and experiences.

Q.When will these Autism friendly itineraries be available to book?

Nicole – Were creating them now. I just sent Stephanie sell sheets. I also think it is important for people to know that while we are developing high- and low-sensory activity options and itineraries, each trip can be tailored to the unique needs of your family. Each trip can be completely customized. Some kids love the ocean and want to spend more time on the coast surfing and snorkeling. Other kids love equine therapy. Each itinerary will be based on what the family would like and what the person with Autism or other cognitive disability needs.

Stephanie – These are sample itineraries, to show families what is doable.

Q.What are you both most excited about when it comes to the new itineraries youre developing and the partnership as a whole?

Nicole – Im hoping families will begin to see and understand that Costa Rica is completely accessible and doable and Autism-friendly. Families with Autism often feel like international travel is too daunting. If people can see the kinds of activities that are available and work with someone like myself and Stephanie, they will hopefully see that travel is something they can plan, and can dream about, and can really do.

Stephanie – We hope this collaboration will open the minds of people—not just for families who have children with Autism—but maybe you have a parent or grandparent who doesnt travel anymore because he or she is in a wheelchair. Families with any condition can travel. We want to open the world to many people and to help them see that traveling the world can be relaxing and peaceful and that it is doable.

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