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Spring 2002 Table of Contents
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Family Vacation, a Perfect Opportunity for Skill Building and Fun

By Kate Moss, Family Specialist, TSBVI, Texas Deafblind Outreach

It's that time of year in Texas... school's almost out, the temperature is rising, and everyone's thoughts turn to the great escape. Vacation! While many of us will choose a quiet time at home, others will choose to travel. Vacationing with a child who is visually impaired or deafblind, and perhaps has other disabilities, can require some special planning. For those of you who have been reluctant to launch out on a trip with your child, I hope to persuade you to give it a try. For those of you who are seasoned travelers, maybe this will give you some ideas about how to make the trip more meaningful to your child with visual impairments or deafblindness.

Adventures require some planning

The first step in planning is to pick your destination. Though the world is open to you, it helps to pick a destination that matches the amount of time you have, the amount of money you can spend, and the kinds of things you want to do. Many trips have been doomed from the start because the group of travelers were not in agreement about their expectations for their time away. If this is a family vacation, take time to discuss what types of things each of you would enjoy doing. It is probably better initially to think of activities, rather than focus on a place. Make a list of the kinds of activities each person finds relaxing and enjoyable. Don't forget to include activities that your child with disabilities might enjoy if he/she is not able to speak for himself/herself. Consider a range of activities, including those things that you have never done before but always wanted to try.

You can also get your child involved in planning the trip. If your child is learning how to use the internet, help her research possible travel destinations. For example, a search using keywords "Texas" and "vacation" turns up many links to various websites about places to go in Texas. Depending on your child's computer skills, she may be able to search by state or city names to identify potential sites of interest. Of course, some websites are more accessible to people with visual impairments than others.

Visit your local library for books about travel. Ask your educational staff to have your child do some "research" as part of his or her literacy activities. If you know where you will be going while on vacation, ask them to help your child find books about the animals, historical events, or points of interest related to these destinations. Begin to work on concepts that your child might need to know about some of these destinations. For example, if you are going to the ocean, start learning about "salt water," "sand," and "sunburn."

If you are going to travel by car, think about the reliability of your family vehicle, its size related to comfortable travel and luggage storage, and suitability of the vehicle for the terrain you are traveling through. There is nothing more miserable than being crammed in a car that breaks down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. If the family car is too small or not particularly reliable, it might be a good idea to consider other modes of travel such as rental cars, the bus, the train, or a plane. If your budget won't allow for that expense, you might want to consider traveling to a place close-by, or building a vacation around fun activities near your home.

Vacations can be incredibly stressful if you feel overwhelmed by your schedule of activities. My personal experience is that I always overestimate the amount of driving I can do and the number of activities I can participate in each day. Have your child help you choose from a list of possible activities, to make the most of the time available. Each day, give her opportunities to select preferred activities. If possible, build some flexibility into your plans, in case family members want to extend or shorten an activity.

It is also wise to set a budget for your trip. What are the limits on your spending? What will food, lodging, entertainment and souvenirs cost? Knowing what you can afford to spend, and sticking to it, can make for a vacation that won't stress you out after you come home and see the travel bills. Talk to your visually impaired child about the costs of the trip. This is a great opportunity to learn budgeting skills. There are many ways to keep down the trip's cost. For example, you can bring food from home for at least one meal each day, or travel with a cooler so you can pick up items from grocery stores along the way. Your child can participate by making a list and helping you find things in the grocery store. Food in restaurants and fast foods are much more expensive. Many hotels and motels offer free breakfast buffets or special rates for families. Be sure to ask about these possibilities when you make reservations or check in. Camping, especially at state and national parks, can often reduce the cost of lodging. Discuss these options with your child to help them learn how budgeting decisions get made.

Making the journey fun

If there are family members who don't do well sitting in a car for more than an hour, think about the value of making them do that. Ultimately, you may decide that's just the way it has to be. However, planning shorter segments of travel, with brief activities interspersed along the way, might make everyone's journey much more enjoyable.

Games and activities for small spaces are always a good idea when traveling with children. There are a variety of books with simple car games and activities for children that can be found at major bookstores and/or your library. There are also a variety of specially designed travel board games at most toy stores. Many of these games can be adapted, so that your child with disabilities can be included in the play.

An easy thing to do is to make a lap board of thin plywood and glue Lego-type blocks on to the board to make a building grid. This makes a secure base for building or stacking activities with the Lego-type blocks while traveling in the car. If two or more children share the activity, you may want to place the base in the lap of the child with the disability so the activity will center around him and provide more opportunities for interaction.

Another option is to make a lap tray with a 1/2 inch raised lip around the edge. A variety of insert boards can be designed using poster board or cardboard for building blocks, marble maze games, felt board art, drawing, etc. These can be placed inside the tray and changed as the activity changes. The tray will help secure the surface and also prevent crayons and other items from rolling off onto the floor.

A metal cookie sheet also makes a great play surface for magnet letters and shapes. When the magnets get dropped or spilled, the tray can be used to quickly retrieve the magnets from the floor or seat. You could even let the child collect different magnets from the places you visit. Have a conversation about each one, where you got it, what you did in that place, who you met there, and so forth.

Portable tape players with cassettes of music or stories can make a long trip pass quickly. Be sure to get the tape players with headphones; this can make your journey much more enjoyable. There are many good book and tape packages, as well as music of all kinds available, to purchase at most toy stores or borrow from your public library.

A travel scrapbook is a nice idea for the child who is using an object or picture calendar. Objects and/or pictures (depending on the individual needs of the child) collected from the day's journey can be saved and placed on pages of the book, separated by dividers, to represent each day of the trip. Brothers and sisters can help with the book and/or make a book of their own. As much as possible, let the child pick the objects or pictures. Drawings can also be added. If the child has a good deal of usable vision, postcards purchased from previous visits, or pictures from travel brochures depicting travel destinations, can be used to represent "tomorrow's travel itinerary." Each evening the calendar book can be discussed as a part of the bedtime story routine. In addition to filling time in the car and helping the child better understand what's coming up, this book will serve as a great reminder of the trip that you and your child can talk about throughout the rest of the year. It may also become a cherished keepsake as your child or children grow older.

You might also use symbols or pictures to represent and discuss certain types of "stops" in your travel. For example, if you pull into a roadside park just to use the restroom, you might have a picture or bathroom symbol to help your child with disabilities and his siblings understand in advance that this will be a short stop. A timer could be used if returning to the car is difficult for some of your passengers. When you are ready to stop for lunch, a different picture or symbol would be given to your child. Once again, establishing a limit on the amount of time you will be stopped may help the transition back to the road. You can also kill some travel time by discussing what kind of stop will happen next. Symbols like this can also help kids anticipate end of the day favorites like a dip in the pool.

It may be a good idea to rotate seating. Letting each kid take a turn in the front seat can help break up potential conflicts. Of course, the age of the child may eliminate front seat travel if they need to be in a car seat. Sometimes vacations can bring families together a little too much for everyone's individual happiness. Revolving seating, prior to an argument, distributes the togetherness so that it remains a positive thing. While you are at it, you can teach concepts like "first," "next," "front," "back," and "now."

If you have a very young child (birth to four or five), go to your local library or favorite book store and check out books on travel games for children. Travel Games, by Julie Hagstrom, has many games and travel tips to help keep a squirmy baby occupied on those long rides, and many are easily adapted for the child with deafblindness or visual impairments. This particular book also offers good suggestions, such as buying low-sugar snacks to avoid having children who are contained in a car all day with no way to burn off their "sugar charge."

When packing for the trip, especially if the journey is a long one, place some favorite books and toys in a special bag or box that the kids don't know about. This gives you the advantage of surprise when the kids are bored with the play things they brought. Doling out these little surprise packages gives the kids something to look forward to each day. This toy-box-in-the-trunk trick also lets you exercise some control over the amount of junk you have inside the car.

What should we pack?

Everyone tends to pack too many clothes when they travel. Summer travel makes things easier because many items are lightweight and require less space to pack. Limit your wardrobe. Pack things that can be hand-washed in a basin and hung overnight to dry. Remember, if you aren't in the same place for more than two or three days in a row, people won't realize you have worn the same shirt three times that week. Pack one pair of comfortable walking shoes and one pair of dress shoes (if you need to pack any at all). Take a sweater, even in the summer. Air-conditioned buildings can be a chilling experience, and fun places like caves and mountains don't have climate control.

Purchase travel size containers or (if everyone doesn't share the same product) transfer items such as shampoo, lotion and mouth wash to small tightly sealed containers. Include some basic medicinal supplies such as band-aids, antibiotic ointment, sunscreen, aspirin and cotton swabs, or consider purchasing a first aid kit. To prevent spills, place messy items inside plastic bags or plastic containers with tightly fitting lids. Be sure to pack prescriptions of important medications and make sure the amount of medications will not run out before you return home.

If you are planning your excursion so that you will be spending time in the great outdoors, consider packing some of your goodies into a small plastic washtub that has sturdy handles. This tub can be used for hauling water, carrying wood, washing out clothes, bathing children, and so forth. Add disposable clean up cloths (e.g., Wet-Nap, Towelettes, Wet Ones) or dampen cloth rags placed in plastic bags or containers to take care of sticky fingers and faces. These also come in handy when you are feeling hot and tired. Wiping your face, neck, and hands can really help you perk up.

Let your child take responsibility

As your children are able, give them more responsibility for packing and keeping up with their own clothing, toys, and snacks. For some children this may mean taking time to help them generate a list they can tuck in their bag. Some children can make their list in braille or large print. Some children may need to inventory their suit case using pictures of shirts, shoes, underwear, swimsuits and so forth. The child can use it to make sure everything is packed or returned to the suitcase. Of course, you will still probably have to do a check to make sure things don't get left behind, but you may want to have your child help with that. Let her search the closet in the hotel for shoes on the floor or clothes on hangers. Have her "look over" the sink area to make sure toothbrushes haven't been left behind. These skills can come in handy later, when the child needs to be an independent traveler in a future job.

Some children with more multiple disabilities may not be able to take on this much responsibility. Still, they can practice some independence by simply identifying a particular box where toys or snacks are located in the car. They can practice finding the item they want and returning it to its proper place when they are finished. Another great way a child can help is by folding some of their clothes before you pack or repack each day of the trip. Most children, even those with some mobility issues, can help by carrying their backpack or favorite toy to and from the car.

Identify several favorite activities with your child, and organize the materials they will need for each activity. For example, if they like to play with magnets you can have a conversation about the things they will need, such as a cookie sheet to work on, magnets, and a container for carrying the magnets. Once you have helped them identify the materials, have them help you get the materials together for the trip.

Preparing for a trip and packing up your belongings is a great opportunity for working on independent living skills, recreation and leisure skills, and organizational skills. You may want to visit with your Teacher of the Visually Impaired, to get help making materials accessible for your child and for developing ideas about how to work on specific skills.

Special programs for individuals with disabilities

For some families of individuals who are older and interested in traveling on their own, investigate some of the special travel organizations for individuals with disabilities. Some of these organizations offer very exotic vacations with a lot of one-on-one support for a price. One of the brochures I received from this type of organization had trips ranging in price from $895 for a six-day trip to central Oregon up to $3,145 for a ten-day trip to Rome, Italy. Some of these organizations can be found on the Internet at Family Village, http://www.familyvillage.wisc.edu/recreat.htm.

If you are planning to visit amusement parks (e.g., Fiesta Texas, Six Flags), zoos or museums, find out about special accommodations they may offer for people with disabilities. Sometimes these locations can provide special access for children with disabilities, if you notify them of your visit ahead of time. One mom told me that they were able to avoid the long lines in a theme park once the park staff knew her child had a disability.

There are many wonderful places to visit and exciting adventures waiting just outside your door. Even a trip to visit Grandma and Grandpa can be a rich learning experience for your child. Take advantage of these summer opportunities to focus on practicing skills that will help your child throughout his or her life. Most of all enjoy spending time with your child building memories that will last a lifetime.

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Last Revision: July 30, 2002