Rethinking Inclusivity: Transforming Vacation Experiences for Families with Special Needs

July 11, 2023 Author: Greg DeLacy

July is the most popular month for summer vacations. In fact, the busiest travel day of the year usually falls on a Friday in July. Navigating a vacation during these times can be difficult. Navigating a vacation with a child with special needs can be a daunting task. A recent experience at a family resort with my special needs son got me thinking that we've come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed (July 26th, 1990) in terms of wheelchair ramps and accessible rooms. However, there are still major gaps in services to meet the needs of the disabilities community.

ThinkNow regularly asks Americans with disabilities to share their personal experiences as part of our consumer research, so to mark Disability Pride Month, I'd like to share my personal experience on a recent vacation in the hopes that it will add to the conversation and help bring about positive change.

Challenges with Childcare Options for Special Needs

During our vacation, we learned that the resort offered a kids' play park where parents could drop off children between the ages of 4 and 11. However, the facility required children to be potty trained, which immediately excluded our non-verbal special needs son who cannot use the toilet independently. It was disheartening to realize that even in a seemingly inclusive environment, our child was left out of an activity others could enjoy.

As an alternative, the resort mentioned providing babysitting services. However, we discovered that the babysitters would not change diapers either. The arrangement involved having a stranger come to our hotel room to watch the children, which felt unsettling and raised concerns about their safety. Considering our child's non-verbal communication and unique needs, this option was impractical and imprudent.

In both instances, we encountered policies and limitations that may work for "typical" families but failed to accommodate families facing more complex situations. We were left to "figure it out" on our own, trying to find alternative solutions to ensure our child's safety and inclusion. This reality made us keenly aware of the lack of thought and consideration given to families like ours who simply want to enjoy a vacation without constant hurdles.

Ramps Aren't Enough

While many public parks now have ADA-compliant play equipment, this isn't always the case at resorts that cater to families with children. Children with disabilities may sit to the side as other kids use water slides and game areas that aren't set up to accommodate them. Another challenge is the noise and activity at resorts which can overwhelm some children with disabilities. For example, the pool areas that cater to families are often crowded and noisy. Many kids with special needs can become agitated and stressed out in this environment. Some resorts offer quieter adults-only pools, but those do not feel welcoming, so pool time will likely be cut short.

While I understand that not every resort can cater to the needs of children like mine, one would hope that as the travel and hospitality industry designs new properties, they would consider that accessibility is more than ramps and door widths. The goal is to use the same facilities that abled individuals do.

Promoting Inclusivity

Vacation resorts have the opportunity to create genuinely inclusive environments by considering the diverse needs of families with disabled children. Here are a few suggestions to make vacation experiences more inviting for families like mine:

  1. Accessibility Beyond Basics: Go beyond the basic accessibility requirements and prioritize creating spaces and facilities that cater to a wide range of abilities, including sensory-friendly areas and properly equipped changing facilities.
  2. Trained and Compassionate Staff: Offer comprehensive training to resort staff on the unique needs of disabled individuals and their families. Equipping staff members with essential skills and resources ensures the safety and well-being of those entrusted to their care. This not only brings peace of mind to families but also empowers the employees themselves.
  3. Customized Childcare Options: While I understand that it may not be possible to have staff to accommodate every family's needs, a concierge service that makes special caretakers available if reserved in advance would be helpful, as well as having a special needs coordinator on staff to help families make the most of their stay.

Moving Forward

While vacation resorts have made strides in improving accessibility, there is room for improvement. There is a general expectation for families with special needs to conform to existing structures, rather than experience a sincere sense of welcome and accommodation. I hope the hospitality industry prioritizes creating inclusive environments moving forward by offering facilities for diverse disabilities, training compassionate staff, and developing customized childcare options. When resorts go beyond just focusing on physical infrastructure and take into account the unique challenges we face, they have the power to create vacation experiences that are inclusive and enjoyable for all families, regardless of their circumstances.