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Foundation aims to make travel easier for people with disabilities

Rupa Valdez
UVA, Sanjoy Suchak
Rupa Valdez created the Blue Trunk Foundation to help people with disabilities travel.

Rupa Valdez is a professor of public health and engineering at UVA and the founder of a group called Blue Trunk. Its goal is to provide information for disabled people who want to travel. You might not realize Valdez is one of them. On the day I met her, she walked easily from the elevator to her office.

“Some days I’m flared up, and I will be in a wheelchair, and you would count me as visibly disabled,” she explains.

Often, she says, we can’t see a disability, or we visit places where disabled people don’t go.

“There are particular places I don’t go, because I cannot access them, so if you were frequenting those places you would never see me there, and you may not see others for the same reason.”

Someone’s vision or hearing could be poor. They might have emotional problems dealing with crowds or digestive issues that keep them close to bathrooms.

“And then also there are people with temporary disabilities who have broken a leg or an arm or had a concussion or whatever it may be, and so experience disability for a certain amount of time – usually it’s defined as less than six months, but at those points in time certainly have accommodation needs,” she adds.

Valdez says the travel industry has made important improvements, but problems remain. Take airlines for example.

“Bathrooms, of course, are not wheelchair accessible, so you dehydrate yourself beforehand, or you need an Oxygen machine, and you need to plug that in. I mean there are lots of things that need to be thought about where we just don’t have great access.”

She says some cities are better than others.

“I often think about Berlin as an example, because so much had to be reconstructed, and so there is a lot more access, and of course historic cities are more challenging.”

And some cultures are more inclined to provide low-cost solutions for someone who can’t climb stairs. For example, Valdez recalls visiting India with a friend.

“She really wanted to take me to this fabric store, and so she just asked lots of people around – ‘Hey, can you help?’ and there was no hesitation tohelpme, and she said, ‘Are you okay with being lifed?’ and I personally am okay with that. Not everybody of course is, and was able to go in.”

They phoned ahead to another location to see if it was accessible and found people equally willing to help.

“Just give us a couple of hours. We’ll build you a ramp, and they did.”

Her non-profit often advises small businesses in the States on how to be more accessible, and she says they need not spend a lot to accommodate customers who are disabled.

“You may not be able to have a push button or automatic door in place, but you could have a simple sign in place that says, ‘If you need help opening the door, please call this number, and somebody will come out and help you.”

Travelers may also be able to do their part by planning ahead. In Europe, Valdez knows, many places put their restrooms in the basement.

“There’s no elevator so I often have to think about, ‘Okay, I want to go here and here, and then I’m going to find this museum that has a bathroom and then really having to think that out.”

And she advises clients to think about how good communications could be the difference between welcoming disabled customers and turning them away. She recalls one sign spotted on a public restroom door.

“Someone may be in the bathroom for a long periodof time, because they have a certain health condition that requires longer times in the bathroom and to please be patient, and I love that this is almost no cost, but there is so much stigma associated with being in the bathroom for along time. People are impatient. You come out, and you might get a look that makes you feel even worse. This is so simple. It’s just awareness that someone else who is waiting may not even have thought about.”

Her organization offers Information about good options for disabled travelers online and includes ways to travel virtually for those who can’t easily leave home.

For more information, go to https://www.bluetrunk.org/

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief