Travel is notoriously difficult for people in wheelchairs. Flying with a motorized wheelchair can be daunting. Accessible hotel rooms can be few during peak travel periods. For some aspiring travelers, these challenges can prevent them from taking a trip.
In fact, in a recent poll conducted by the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC), 46% of the respondents said they felt that their disability had restricted their ability to fly in the last two years. Another quarter of the people who used special assistance at an airport felt dissatisfied with the service.
Travel advisors Debra Kerper and Jamie Santillo are breaking down those walls for their clients, while also building thriving travel advisory businesses.
“I wake up every day and cannot wait to get to my desk,” said Kerper, a bilateral leg amputee and owner of Cruise Planners – Easy Access Travel, in Carrollton, Texas. Kerper was diagnosed with lupus at 20 years old, and in 1979, became a single amputee at the age of 29. About four years ago, she underwent an amputation on her other leg.
Jim Smith, an industry veteran who consults with the Special Needs Group, Inc. (SNG), calls Kerper “a true superstar,” both as a successful business owner and someone who represents the opportunity to travel available to anyone living with a disability.
“She’s one of a handful of agents who have grabbed the opportunity to build a business based on the firsthand experience of being a special needs traveler,” said SNG’s President and CEO Andrew Garnett. “They’re pretty extraordinary people.”
“I have never let being in a wheelchair stop me from anything I wanted to do,” said Jamie Santillo, who has muscular dystrophy, and is the owner and founder at Adventures by Jamie, in Wesley Chapel, Florida. “I really feel I don’t have any limitations.”
Turning a purpose into a million-dollar business
While Santillo is building her relatively new business serving clients of any ability, Kerper’s tenured agency specializes in individual and group excursions for people with disabilities.
Kerper started in travel around 1992, when her lupus flared up and a doctor told her that “a regular job” could be life threatening. “I wanted and needed a purpose. I’m a doer. I wasn’t going to sit around and be bored because of my lupus,” Kerper said, so she enrolled in a 2-year travel agent class at a local community college.
At the first class, listening to the other students talk about why they were enrolled, “I reinvented myself. I realized, I wanted to specialize in helping people like me travel,” she said. An award-winning student in her class, Kerper was offered the opportunity to learn on the job with one of her instructors when she finished her studies.
She built her business slowly and methodically. In 2010, Ron Pettit, director, disability inclusion & ADA compliance, at Royal Caribbean Cruises, asked Kerper if she was thinking about booking accessible groups.
“I hadn’t been, and was wondering if I could do it,” Kerper recalled. Very soon after, she met a sales prospect at an amputee conference who told her it was his dream to take a cruise with other amputee travelers.
“I called Ron that evening and told him, ‘Your wish is coming true, but how do I do this?’” That cruise group eventually grew to 104 clients, and was the embarkation point for Kerper’s group travel business for people with disabilities. “Ignorance really is bliss,” she said.
She followed up that booking with others, including a group with spina bifida. Her travelers have visited every corner of the globe, touring Africa, Alaska, Israel and New Zealand. They even swam with stingrays in the Caribbean.
Kerper writes about her experiences in her agency’s newsletter, including her own challenges, like the time she fell down on a Southwest Airlines flight while trying to reach the bathroom.
“When I tell people these stories, it gives them confidence. They trust me with their travels,” Kerper said.
“People like Deb bring authenticity to the market and help people realize they, too, can travel wherever they want,” Garnett said.
Today, Easy Access Travel is a Cruise Planners Millionaire Club franchise, and has more than 5,000 people with disabilities in the agency’s database, and Kerper is a sought-after motivational speaker.
“We all have certain qualities. Maybe God didn’t give me great health, but he gave me strong will – and Steve, a great husband,” she added. “He’s my biggest fan, with a great sense of humor.”
Dealing with so many challenges has made her a better travel advisor, Kerper said. “I have a great deal of respect for the trust my clients place with me,” she said. “If someone has ALS, and this could be the last trip they ever take, that’s a responsibility I take very, very seriously.”
Authenticity translates to success
Jamie Santillo earned a Bachelor of Mass Communications in 2000 and a Master of business Management in 2005. She owns and manages her own marketing communications company, JS Creative Concepts & Marketing, after working for a national hospital chain. She started Adventures by Jamie nine months ago as an offshoot of her marketing firm.
Planning galas and reunions for clients, Santillo frequently received requests to also book their travel, including flights, hotels and car rental. “I wanted to find a way to provide that service, but wasn’t necessarily looking for a second job. My marketing company keeps me quite busy,” she said.
After conducting research online, Santillo settled with a host agency. Something of a generalist, Santillo leverages her personal experience to market to people with disabilities. “I love to travel as much as anyone else. So, when I’m traveling, I’ll always do at least one video,” she said. At Disney recently, she promoted videos of her in a wheelchair accessible room, and on the rides and at shows.
“Some clients call me and say, ‘I saw your video at Disney, on Royal Caribbean. Tell me a little about that. My child is in a chair. My elderly father uses a walker.’” Clients comment about how Santillo’s insights build confidence and trust in handing their travel plans over to her.
“They are seeing that I am the real thing, and they’re comfortable discussing with me even the most personal needs of their friend, their family member, a child, themselves,” said Santillo, who is certified with the Special Needs Group. “They’ll open up about their worries, of say using a bathroom on an airplane, at a theme park or resort, because while that’s a private matter, they know that is my world, too.”
Santillo doesn’t look at her muscular dystrophy as any particular challenge beyond its practical impact on her mobility. “I have heard ‘no you can’t’ more often than ‘yes you can,’ and now I love proving the world wrong, that I am very, very capable,” she said.
Her determination comes from her childhood, Santillo said, and how her family and friends encouraged her to do everything any other child would do. “My family even found a way for me to take horseback riding lessons. It may not have been the way everyone else did it, but they encouraged me to live to my life’s potential,” she said.
She also credits her spiritual faith. “I have come to believe I am here to help other people whether they have a disability or not,” Santillo said.
While Santillo is proud of how far the travel industry has come in making vacations more accessible, there are still significant gaps.
“I requested a wheelchair-accessible suite once with a major chain. Though they had accessible rooms, they had zero accessible suites,” she said. She also has heard of people without disabilities booking accessible rooms because the guest wanted the extra space. “For most hotel companies, there is no qualifier during reservations to ensure someone booking an accessible room actually needs it.”
Santillo is also concerned with the airline industry’s record of damaging motorized wheelchairs. “It’s huge, and that is limiting for me and my clients, because you can’t take the chance of arriving at your destination and find that your chair was damaged,” she said.
Santillo says that travelers in wheelchairs often elect to take a non-motorized chair. “Depending on the destination, then I have to be pushed the entire time that I’m away. I would love to see a way that airlines could allow us to take a motorized wheelchair on the plane.”
Jorge Zayas, Santillo’s childhood friend and current caregiver, believes Santillo was always destined to chart her own course. “Many times, she said to me, ‘I’m going to be my own boss,” he recalled. “So, none of this is surprising, her starting her own company, living all of these experiences.”
Santillo mentioned a recent adventure ziplining at Gatorland in Orlando. “I always wanted to go ziplining, but I don’t have the core strength to do so.” An avid researcher on adaptive travel experiences, she discovered Gatorland has one of the few adaptive zipline experiences in the country.
“It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “I want anyone with a challenge to push themselves to their limits, to feel that kind of exhilaration. If it made me feel like I can do anything, and maybe it can do the same for you.”