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5 Special Needs Vacation Ideas

When planning a vacation with a child who has special needs, begin months ahead and be prepared for false starts. But there are vacations for you out there. Some are free or offer scholarships for families with limited resources. To start your search, try these ideas.

1 Look for vacations for specific challenges, such as blindness, diabetes, breathing disorders or children with terminal illnesses. If there is a support organization for your child’s disease or disability, start there. For example, group cruises sometimes target diabetics or people on dialysis, but you’re unlikely to hear of them unless you network with juvenile diabetes or kidney disease support groups. You can search our SpecialKids Guide for support organizations or by disability.

Cruises and excursions for people with mobility challenges (wheelchairs, slow walkers) are easier to find through general disability newsletters and magazines such as Emerging Horizons.

Airport Rehearsals

An Albert Einstein Healthcare Network program, Autism Explores, helps children affected by autism to become more familiar with the sights and sounds of travel before taking a real trip on an airplane.

The program creates a simulated flight at airports across the Northeast, including Philadelphia International Airport, with practice activities from curb to cabin, including checking in, going through security, waiting at the gate, boarding the plane, taking a simulated flight and collecting luggage at the baggage check. 855-AUTISM2

2 Find camps for children with special needs only. Some camps do not permit parental participation or even visits. The goal is to give the family a break from the stresses of caregiving while the child gets total attention and interacts with others with the same challenges. Dragonfly Forest in Philadelphia, for example, has separate camp sessions for children who have autism, bleeding disorders or asthma. Visit our SpecialKids Guide for dozens of camps serving kids with special needs.

Family members pursue their own vacation activities during the day if your child is in day camp. Evenings are free for everyone to enjoy together.

3 Resorts, cruises and hotels sometimes feature programs for special needs. Mom Raquel Scharf-Anderson chose a Disney cruise for travels with a daughter who has life-threatening allergies to foods and other items. Starting weeks ahead, she worked closely with Disney specialists and found the personal service outstanding.

After check-in, Raquel met with the head chef. Wait staff at every meal knew about the allergies and a chef accompanied the little girl through the buffet line. Special needs were met at every step, even when it was time to serve birthday cake to Grandma and during a cooking class when safe ingredients were provided for the child’s project.

Check your resort or cruise of choice for available services and facilities. Make your needs known at least 4-6 weeks in advance.

4 Look for local resources that meet your child’s special needs. For example, at many beach areas you can rent a fat tire wheelchair for use on sand. Many communities have “kneeling” buses, rental wheelchairs or mobility carts and rental vans with lifts.

Dream Vacations

National organizations provide dream-come-true vacations available to families with a child who has a life-threatening illness. They include CampSunshine, www.campsunshine.org; Hole in the Wall Gang, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and Memories of Love.
Usually the entire family gets VIP treatment.

In Philadelphia, Independence Hall provides a GPS-enabled video guide in American Sign Language. (Call 215-597-7130 two weeks in advance.) At Lake Compounce Theme Park in Bristol CT, staff have been trained by Autism Speaks to understand challenges faced by autistic guests and their families. The park’s SAM program lets children and one guardian go to the front of the line if a condition makes waiting difficult.

5 Customized luxury vacations luxury vacations are expensive but organizers pride themselves on personalized service for small groups or families. You might book a wheelchair-accessible African safari, or a paraplegic scuba cruise in the Caribbean. It’s best to do a search for key words such as equestrian + vacation + handicap, or whitewater + handicap + (name of a country or state).

Traveling with children, especially kids with special needs, isn’t a magic carpet. However, there’s a glowing, growing welcome mat around the world. Whatever your needs, a real vacation awaits your family.

More Ideas: Home Swaps, Rentals, Tattoos

Swap your handicap-accessible home with another family and get a free vacation. The free site www.matchinghouses.com finds home swaps for people who need wheelchair access. It lists homes in 54 countries from Albania to the U.S. Based in England, www.accessatlast.com also matches up home swaps for specific handicaps for a fee.

► For children with breathing or allergy problems, an excellent source is www.pureroom.com. Click on the city you want to visit to find hotels that have Pure Rooms promising to be cleared of up to 98% of bacteria and viruses.

Contact tourism information offices for cities, states, regions and countries. Many have a section for special needs tourism.

Property rental. Rentals worldwide are listed on www.accessibleproperties.net, but check carefully into the exact degree of accessibility. Americans with Disabilities Act standards apply in the U.S. and its territories, but “wheelchair accessible” can mean much less elsewhere.

Temporary tattoos. These fill-in forms let you ink in allergies, daily contact information, or other important details that could change as you travel. To see examples, visit www.safetytat.com

Janet Groene is a freelance writer.

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