Travelling with a Child with Special Needs

Posted on

Travelling with a Child with Special Needs

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless […]We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
John Steinbeck, American author.

Travelling; though it may often begin as an escape from routine over the holiday season; offers endless opportunities for enriching experiences for children. As a parent of a child with a disability, this is no less true, though, with the above quote in mind, the practical aspects are sometimes a little more challenging when travelling with a child with special needs. 

In June 2013, after needing to take my son, Damian, out of school for scheduled surgery and resigning from my job to be able to care for him during the four- to six month recovery period, we found ourselves at a loose end when the surgery was unexpectedly cancelled. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for a  three week road trip for a long overdue visit to  family while determining the way forward. Fourteen months later, that road trip took us on an extraordinary journey – discovering new places, forging friendships and finding a gentler way to live.We left Cape Town with some surprises in store for us, and I packed – and unpacked – our car more times than I can count.

Travelling offers endless opportunities for enriching experiences for children.

The first leg of our trip included stops in Swellendam, the Garden Route, Port Elizabeth and then on to East London to our family. From there we travelled to the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, exploring the area as well as further afield to Durban and Ixopo – visiting a number of attractions and overcoming accessibility challenges as and when they arose. With time to spare en route back to Cape Town, our real adventures began. We stopped in Plettenberg Bay for two weeks as part of a farm volunteer program – and ended up staying 5 months. Exchanging my office stilettos for farm gumboots; and with Damian by my side, we spent our days looking after and riding horses– a far cry from the rushed city life we had been living. Returning to Cape Town to pick up where we left off, after a brief holiday with several more adventures in our own city, we found ourselves on another volunteer farm, again with one month becoming five.

Since then, we have spent a lot more time on the road, as well as some in the air with a quite a number of notches on our adventure belts.We have learned to adapt to diverse environments, streamline our travel preparations and appreciate every moment – good or bad – as part of the journey. Afterall, a good journey is not just a physical trip, it is an exploration of self, broadening of horizons and building of resilience – and if these are things we can share with our children, how fortunate we are.

Packing the car for a trip

With a special needs child, preparation requires a little more planning and packing the car often requires a certain degree of dexterity. I have mastered the art of getting the maximum number of items into the minimum amount of space. Make sure wheelchairs are easily accessible – the first inclination is to pack bulkier items first. Whether stopping at attractions along the way, or doing a trip in one go, the wheelchair will be the first item needed at your destination. Pack it last to get it out first. Pack clothing into smaller bags that can be used to fill spaces rather than one big bag that takes up space. 

Travelling with a Child with Special Needs

Refreshments and bathroom stops

Cape Town based nutritional therapist, Heidi du Preez, says that “special needs children need nutrient dense food. The journey alone might be stressful enough for them to cope with and should not be filled with sugar-laden junk food, which adds more stress for their systems to cope with. Plan ahead and pack healthy snacks.” I find Damian loses his appetite while travelling long distance, so keeping him hydrated is paramount, though he will occasionally snack on something light like yoghurt, banana or biltong – all of which are easy to both pack and eat. He would choose a drinking yoghurt or fruit juice over food on a roadtrip.

Bathroom stops tend to be tricky ordeals. Easy access to a wheelchair is essential for bathroom stops, though having a lightweight and easy to unpack alternative, such as a pram, in my experience, is a practical solution.

Healthy Snack Ideas for the road:

  • Fresh fruit 
  • Fresh vegetable juice (dilute with purified water 1:1)
  • Smoothie or shake
  • Crudités with a dip like hummus, guacamole, beetroot and dill or cottage cheese dip
  • Wheat- or gluten-free biscuit, rusk or muffin
  • Date balls 

Naturally Nutritious - Heidi du Preez

  • Plain yoghurt and chopped fresh fruit, sprinkled with seeds and / or nuts
  • Free-range biltong
  • Popcorn, lightly salted
  • Rye, rice or corn crisp bread or oat cakes with any of the following toppings: avocado; cottage cheese; cucumber; rocket; hummus; goat’s milk cheese; tomato and basil; olive tapenade; sardine spread or pesto 

Avoiding boredom and frustration

Music is always a winning choice for us, whether relaxing melodies or fun songs. When music isn’t doing the trick, ‘spot all the white cars’ is an excellent game of concentration, and the test of my own comes into play when after 10 minutes of silence and the game forgotten, Damian will pipe up with an insistent “There!” indicating with his eyes the approaching
white car. Tablets with games for children who are able to use them, or movies to while away the time are also convenient options.

Accommodation Challenges

Staying in different establishments, each with their own set of accessibility challenges is a lesson in being flexible. Access to buildings is the first obstacle. Even if there are ramps to the entrances, often the terrain leading to the establishments may be unpaved, making manoeuvring a wheelchair an exercise in strength and patience. The next hurdle is the bathroom. Some accommodation establishments only have showers, not baths, and this makes
washing a differently-abled child difficult. Research is paramount to a comfortable stay. Don’t be shy to ask for photos or even a short video tour to be sent by Whatsapp or email.

Suggestions for activities and adventures

  • Museums, animal parks and aquariums are usually popular choices with most children, and many cater for wheelchairs and strollers. Most cities should have at least one of these as an option.
  • River rafting is a fun option and a child can be seated snuggly in the nose of a rubber croc, with a life jacket, while mom and/or dad paddle. 
  • With a selection of bicycle trailers now on the market, special needs children can be included on cycling outings and events.
  • Horse riding is therapeutic as well as enjoyable.Many riding schools have suitable ponies on which special needs children can be led with assistance.

If you live in Cape Town, or plan to visit, find out about 10 Wheelchair Accessible Activities for Kids to do in Cape Town.

Domestic and International Flights

We have flown on both domestic and international flights and have experienced some of the challenges that present themselves unexpectedly in both situations. Generally we have found staff of the passenger assist unit and the cabin crew knowledgeable and helpful. On checking in, we have been met by a staff member who escorts us through security and to the boarding gates and helps us onto the vehicle that transports people with disabilities to the plane.

On one domestic flight, as we were about to land at our destination, the airport was declared closed due to a severe storm, so instead of touching down, the plane began to climb again and we were diverted to another city where we were given the choice to disembark and make our own arrangements there, or to wait half an hour when they would attempt to land again at our destination, and failing that, we would turn around and return to Cape Town. Fortunately we were able to land on the second attempt, but it was a little nerve-wracking for Damian at first, and having to make a decision on whether to disembark in Port Elizabeth, 3 hours away from our destination in East London, without a backup plan, or to take the chance on the second attempt and possibly return home.

On an international flight to Ireland, we had a half hour layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were told to wait on the plane until everyone had disembarked while they fetched our wheelchair. With time running out, and still no wheelchair, eventually we had to carry Damian, running through the airport with a member of staff, trying not to miss our next plane. Both these situations were a reminder to have essential items packed in hand luggage in case you and your checked-in luggage get separated, so that at least you can survive a day or two while sorting out any luggage catastrophes.

Read our review of our first flight with FlySafair Cape Town to East London return. 

Travelling with a Child with Special Needs

Tips for flying

  • When you book your flights make sure to book the passenger assist unit [PAU].  
  • When checking in make sure they are aware you have booked the PAU. They will call a member of staff to assist you through security and to the boarding gates, onto the transfer vehicle and into the plane.
  • If you need a slipper seat for a larger child, be sure to request this for transfer to your seat, and also for use on the plane for visiting the toilets etc.
  • Make sure any loose attachments on the wheelchair are secure and can’t get lost as it gets packed into the cargo-hold until you reach the other side.
  • Make sure to book middle and aisle seats for easier access to the toilets on long-haul flights
  • If you have a layover between flights, plan according to the time you have available.
  • Not all planes have decent sized toilets with changing facilities so prepare according your child’s needs for any incidents in this regard.
  • Staff are usually well-trained and experienced so ask questions and for assistance when needed.
  • Be prepared to be the last to exit the plane
  • Make sure your transport is arranged for your arrival and anyone to assist you if you need help with collecting luggage and pushing a wheelchair.
  • Pack an extra set of clothing and essential items like medication, feeding bottles etc. into hand luggage in case of any emergencies or in case checked-in luggage gets lost, so you have anything you may need on you until you can make other arrangements.


  1. Naturally Nutritious by Heidi du Preez, ISBN 978-0-620-54400-9 
  2. Adapted from an article originally commissioned by, and published in, Child Magazine in 2015.
Deirdré Gower
Author: Deirdré Gower

Deirdré Gower is the founder of Warrior On Wheels Foundation and Accessible South Africa. She is mom to 20 year old Damian, who has spastic quadriplegia and explores the world in his wheelchair. Deirdré is also a horse trail guide and website designer. To get in touch, email

2 thoughts on “Travelling with a Child with Special Needs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *