In Support of Special-Needs Travel: It’s All About Understanding

In Support of Special-Needs Travel: It’s All About Understanding

Written by

Karin SheetsThe Family Travel Association has assembled a remarkable family-travel brain trust to guide our development – advisors on our board and other councillors, members and partners with many years of travel thought-leadership. Over the coming weeks and months, we will share a bounty of wisdom from their decades of advocacy for and hands-on practice in family travel.

Following our inaugural pieces by Keith Bellows, Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Travel, by Kyle McCarthy, Editor of Family Travel Forum, by Matt Villano, a senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, and by Heather Greenwood Davis, an award-winning journalist and feature writer, this week the spotlight turns to Karin Sheets, an adventurer and special needs advocate who can be found at Special Needs Travel Mom. She reacts to the recent debate about the removal from a flight of a family that included a child on the autism spectrum.

With the recent conversation and controversy swirling around the removal from a flight of a family that included a child on the autism spectrum, there is no shortage of opinions. Social media has been flooded with positions ranging from blaming the mom for being too threatening in her requests or not being more prepared, to criticizing the flight attendants for lacking compassion and customer service, condemning the pilot for overreacting to a perceived threat, and denouncing the airline for outright discrimination. Hindsight is always 20/20 and there is room for improvement on all sides.

The position-taking, however, overshadows a more important conversation about the significance of travel for families with special needs. After the story broke, I started hearing from parents expressing their deep concern about traveling with special-needs children. This incident resonated with them. They wondered if something like this could happen to them too. It amplified their fears and regrettably gave them one more reason to stay home.

Karin Sheets and her special-needs child

I understand firsthand the challenges and joys of family travel with a special-needs child. Although my child is not on the autism spectrum, her needs are profound and travel is an adventure in every sense of the word. There are many things to consider, making packing and preparing important, but no guarantee that everything will go smoothly. Still, while traveling with a special-needs child takes a lot more effort, it is greatly outweighed by the benefits. Family travel with my special-needs child is liberating and helps put the consuming challenges of my day-to-day into perspective. It also allows my family to reconnect outside of doctors, therapies and difficult decisions. It makes us feel whole.

As an industry, tourism must accommodate special needs, not just because it is customer-friendly, but also because it makes sense financially. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with more people than ever before being diagnosed with it. The CDC also estimates that one in five Americans – about 53 million people – has a disability of some kind, with 8.7 million having limited mobility. Add to this the aging U.S. population and you have a significant group of people that would benefit from some accommodation and understanding.

Fortunately, the travel industry is beginning to take notice, with companies like Alaska Airlines utilizing a Disability Advisory Board to consider customer and employee experiences, and connect with external organizations to implement training, policies and initiatives, constantly improving service for this demographic.

Special-needs parents frequently ask me about destinations and attractions that are accommodating; a positive referral is of great value. Once these families find destinations that work for them, they generally return time and time again for longer stays. These families are not looking for special treatment, but appreciate a compassionate perspective and efforts to improve accessibility. In return, they reward with loyalty.

It all starts with a little understanding.

Adventurer and special-needs advocate, Karin Sheets believes that stepping outside her world by traveling helps keep life in perspective and strengthens family bonds. She writes to encourage and inspire other families with special needs children to travel and enjoy the adventure that is life. You can catch up with Karin at her blog –

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10 responses to “In Support of Special-Needs Travel: It’s All About Understanding”

  1. You are so right…a little understanding goes a long way–on every level. It’s about time the companies are taking notice and getting ahead of the issue.

  2. Julie Cohn says:

    Karin, you are absolutely correct, the travel industry needs to catch up to the needs of its customers and accommodate those with special needs. I am not surprised Alaskan Airlines is ahead of the curve and hope the other airlines learn to be more accommodating.

    • Karin says:

      Thanks for your comments Julie. I was so impressed by the intention behind Alaska Airlines’ Disability Advisory Board, and how they put action behind that intention. We are all human, and mistakes happen, but knowing they have such a solid foundation of serving travelers of all abilities was really refreshing.

  3. Shobha says:

    Thank you for highlighting this issue! People seem accepting of special needs children but not if it affects their plane ride or their holiday. I hope more people learn to be understanding.

  4. Very well said,Karin.I couldn’t agree more.As the population of people with disabilities increases world wide it is time for the travel industry to take notice and help with accommodations.

  5. Christine Tibbetts says:

    Thank you for helping all of us travel better through your perspective. I could be kinder, notice special needs traveling families in a helpful way, encourage the industry to do likewise.

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