For travellers with hidden disabilities, the normal stress associated with travel (whether for business or pleasure) is compounded by several additional factors. Whether you’re a travel companion, event planner, group coordinator, travel manager or an individual personally affected by a hidden disability, it’s important to understand what proactive steps you can take to ensure a smooth trip.
Take the airport, for example. From security lines to flight delays, the airport poses at least a minor amount of stress for every traveller. Add a hidden disability into the mix, and the airport security line becomes a prolonged interrogation about medical equipment; something as simple as an unexpected gate change could risk anything from a missed flight to a passenger with fibromyalgia losing the ability to walk for the rest of the day.
In this environment, most onlookers and airport officials understand how to help the visibly disabled, allowing them extra time, space, and assistance to safely complete their journey. But for those of us with hidden disabilities, our needs are unfortunately not so easily understood. Since we don’t seem disabled, the medications we carry will naturally elicit more scrutiny, and our requests for assistance are often overlooked.
Fortunately, awareness is increasing and the world is becoming more and more accessible each day. Most of the time, a bit of forward thinking and a few preventative measures are the only difference between an easy journey and an escalated health problem. For instance, a timely provided wheelchair, or allowing an insulin dependent diabetic to jump an unexpectedly long queue, could significantly reduce the risk of triggering a hypo.
However, despite great progress being made, the truth is it can still be dangerous and potentially life-threatening to rely on the hope that unique needs can always be met in unfamiliar places. Whatever role hidden disabilities play in our journey, it is each of our responsibilities to understand the measures we can take to ensure safety and happiness for all parties when travelling to new environments.
This inevitably means facing a lot of unknown variables, and that can feel pretty overwhelming at times. But here’s another truth: travelling with a hidden disability doesn’t have to be daunting. Whether you’re supervising a group or travelling alone, there are many easy actions you can take to mitigate risks for travellers with hidden disabilities. A little preparation and proactive thinking can help ensure a smooth and confident journey for everyone involved.
Know Before You Go
The best recipe for avoiding stressful travel situations is a healthy combination of research and time. Don’t wait until the last minute to make travel preparations. If possible, begin gathering information that will help you anticipate needs and avoid problems at least a month before travel.
- When booking flights, choose seats according to any specific needs you/your traveller may have. For example, travellers flying with stoma bags and individuals affected by Crohn’s Disease/IBD may find aisle seats closer to the restrooms most beneficial, while travellers with fibromyalgia or chronic pain should look for seats with extra leg room, allowing them to shift positions and stretch when needed.
- When booking hotels, research accessibility options and check proximity to local medical facilities.
- Individuals should also be aware of your country’s nearest foreign embassy and consider notifying your embassy of travel plans to ensure prompt assistance in the event of an emergency. Registration can be done in person after your arrival, or many countries now offer online enrolment. You can also contact your embassy’s health department for a list of approved health care professionals in your destination.
Traveling with Medication
From proper storage techniques to international regulations, there are many things to consider when travelling with medication. Different countries have different rules for travelling with controlled substances. Among those stricter are Japan, United Arab Emirates, and Singapore. Depending on your destination, some prescriptions/dosages may be illegal or restricted to a limited supply.
Whether you’re an individual or a group travel organiser, it’s important to understand what precautions are necessary to ensure travellers always have access to the medicine they need while also avoiding any potential problems at the border. Always check with the embassy of your arrival country well ahead of time for the most accurate information regarding medication restrictions and required documentation. A limited list of country regulations can also be found on the International Narcotics Control Board website.
Travellers bringing medication across borders should use the following guidelines for packing and storing:
- Bring enough medication to last your entire trip, plus a bit extra in case of delays.
- Store all medication in its original labeled packaging, making sure your name is clear and correctly spelled.
- Always pack medication and supplies in your carry-on, and store at your feet for easy access when traveling on planes.
- Bring a copy of your original prescription plus generic medication names in case you need a refill in your destination. If traveling abroad, you may also want to consider bringing a translated copy in the local language.
- Carry legal documentation of your prescription and supplies on hand during travel. Depending on your destination, this may include a doctor’s note explaining the need for syringes, controlled substances, or injectable medication; an original prescription; or a certificate issued by a General Practitioner or specialist.
- Visit your doctor 6-8 weeks before travel to ensure you have enough time to refill prescriptions, get required vaccinations, obtain medical documentation outlined above, and begin any necessary medical regimen changes in anticipation of crossing time zones.
- Ask your pharmacist how to safely store medication while in transit. Substances that require refrigeration, such as insulin, can be transported in an insulated bag with reusable cold packs, and should be kept separate from toiletries.
- After landing, inspect all medication before administering to ensure it hasn’t been altered or compromised.
- Make sure to choose a travel insurance policy that will cover lost, confiscated, and stolen supplies or medication. It’s also a good idea to check with your regular insurance provider to understand what medical expenses you’ll be responsible for while traveling.
At the Airport
Your bags are packed, your hotel is booked, and the only thing left to do is get on the plane. In just a few simple steps, minimise your potential for stress while navigating the airport and learn how to handle the common obstacles you’ll face from security lines through boarding.
- Alert both the airport and the airline you’re travelling on of any special assistance you/your traveller requires at least 72 hours in advance. With proper notification, many airlines can offer a security escort or extra luggage allowance.
- If you’re travelling in the UK, consider requesting a hidden disabilities lanyard. These lanyards are a discreet way to alert airport staff that you may require extra assistance on your journey, and they have been embraced by several airports throughout the UK. You can request a lanyard on-site at participating airports’ special assistance desks or contact a representative through your airport’s official website at least 2 weeks before travel to have them posted by mail.
- On the day of travel, always arrive extra early for unknown variables. For individuals with autism, a pre-visit to the airport lounge a few days ahead of time may be useful to help get accustomed to new sights and sounds.
- When going through the security check, always communicate to officials if you or someone in your group is wearing a personalised medical electronic device (PMED), such as an insulin pump or cardiac device. Never send insulin pumps or CGMs through an X-ray machine or the body scanner. Instead, request to walk through the regular metal detector or receive a pat down. Consider carrying a patient information or similar notification card to discreetly communicate your needs through this process.
- Stay hydrated at the airport and on your flight! Ostomates should especially avoid fizzy drinks and be sure to change stoma bags just before boarding to limit the amount of air inside it. Make sure to cut all baseplates before travel, as scissors are not permitted on flights.
- If you’re travelling alone, always make sure to let someone know (i.e. a flight attendant or companion) what your specific needs are in case of an emergency.
- Always have a backup plan. Consider the worst-case scenarios and make sure you know your options.
- If you’re travelling internationally, write down phrases in the local language of your destination that will help you communicate you/your traveller’s specific needs.
- Pack an emergency kit with an extra reserve of supplies, such as alcohol wipes, storage bags, hand sanitiser, etc.
- Make sure to bring additional items or comfort objects that haven’t already been listed. For example, diabetics should pack a healthy amount of snacks, candy, and meals for long-haul flights.
- Once you’ve arrived at your destination, be sure to continue paying close attention. Test your blood sugar more frequently if you’re diabetic; take some extra time for gentle stretching if you have fibromyalgia. Time zone changes, new environments, and stress all affect our bodies in significant ways, so it’s important to stay aware of how travellers with hidden disabilities are adjusting.
Above all else, it’s important to note that although we face more challenges while travelling with hidden disabilities, we don’t have to face them alone. If you’ve made it this far and you’re still feeling completely overwhelmed, don’t worry — we’ve got you covered!
As a professional travel and events advisory with firsthand understanding of hidden disabilities, @luxurylondonguy our aim is to make travel easier and more accessible for all travellers.
We understand the unique obstacles that travellers with hidden disabilities face, and as such, can help anticipate potential problems and alleviate stress for both individuals and group organisers.
Please do Contact us with any questions you may have related to the article above or if you are worried about an upcoming trip and just need to talk through your planning.