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Getting beyond the front gate

Since the 1990 enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, everyone knows what accessibility means. Don't they?

But if you call an amusement or theme park and ask if the park is accessible to people in wheelchairs, the answers typically may be something like, "I guess so" or "Sure, it must be. They rent wheelchairs by the front entrance." But neither reply means someone using a wheelchair will be able to get on a ride, or find a bathroom that he can roll the wheelchair into.

That is why guidebooks for the disabled are so important: They allow people who cannot use the regular facilities to determine whether visiting an area or attraction would be worthwhile.

Places such as Walt Disney World, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios Florida and Colonial Williamsburg have special guides they will send to prospective visitors with special needs. If you don't already have a general guidebook to these destinations, call the toll-free information directory, at (800) 555-1212, and see if the attractions _ or the tourism agencies for the states in which they are located _ have toll-free numbers.

Some standard guides don't mention disabled visitors, and some state guides place a wheelchair symbol after an attraction or hotel but don't explain exactly what that symbol denotes. Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri and New York do have explanations of the symbols they use. And Florida, North Carolina and Vermont are the only Eastern states that offer free guides solely addressing disabled visitors.

Florida's guide, small enough to fit in a pocket, lists 66 attractions, from Adventure Island in Tampa, to Wet 'N Wild in Orlando. Each attraction is rated on 15 items, including areas accessible by wheelchairs, number of rides accessible to the disabled, and whether emergency devices or first aid stations are available to visitors. This information is presented in a chart that is a little hard to read because it is so small, but it contains an enormous amount of information.

More than 300 sites are surveyed in the larger North Carolina guide, including historic sites, snow-skiing areas, outdoor dramas and parks. Each is accompanied by a written description.

Vermont's Guide to Accessible Sites also is available in large print, braille and on audiotape. It concentrates more on meeting places than tourist sites, but is full of helpful information.

Other areas, as diverse as Alaska and Washington, D.C., include a paragraph discussing general accessibility information in their free guide but also list a phone number and address for special access guides.

Popular commercial travel guides, such as the Frommer and Birnbaum series, usually have a paragraph with advice for the disabled, but the attractions listed in the guides are not designated.

The Mobile Travel Guide series, which rates accommodations and restaurants, also provides information on accessibility at restaurants, accommodations and attractions. However, the guides carry a caution that their "Disabled Criteria are unique to our publication and were designed to meet the standards developed by our editorial staff;" so travelers should directly contact the destinations.

The American Automobile Association's Tour Books have symbols, and explanations of those symbols, for lodgings and restaurants, but not recreational facilities. The AAA also publishes The Handicapped Driver's Mobility Guide, which is available at AAA offices for a fee. This guide is designed primarily for handicapped drivers, but it also lists toll-free phone numbers and toll-free TDD lines for hearing-impaired individuals for hotels, airlines, Amtrak and bus lines.

Travelers with a disability who make frequent business or pleasure trips will probably find the best source of information in one of these special newsletters, which give up-to-date information:

Travel Notes is a membership-supported publication by Accessible Journeys, available for an annual subscription fee. A recent issue listed tours to India and Nepal, Asia and the Pacific Rim, and Caribbean and South Pacific cruises. Contact Accessible Journeys, 35 W Sellers Ave., Ridley Park, PA 19078; (800) TINGLES (846-4537), or fax (215) 521-6959.

SATH NEWS, the newsletter of the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped, discusses issues as well as specific trips, such as "Accessible Boating in Glen Canyon." Contact SATH, 347 Fifth Ave., Suite 610, New York, NY 10016; (212) 447-SATH (7284), fax (212) 725-8253.

The Handicapped Travel Newsletter, edited and published by Michael Quigley, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D. and who uses a wheelchair. Articles deal with failure to meet ADA standards, as well as discuss destinations. Six issues are $10. Contact the Newsletter at P.O. Drawer 269, Athens, TX 75751; (903) 677-1260.

The Travelin' Talk Newsletter is the companion piece to the Travelin' Talk Network and the Travelin' Talk Directory. Almost 550 pages long, this directory provides information on the members of a network who are willing to provide services and help to handicapped travelers. It is probably the most personal way to gain information about a travel destination. Each member's listing gives their address, their disability, the areas of information they are willing to share with travelers and the specific services they are willing to offer, such as reservation, guide or transportation services. Most of these services are offered for free or for expense reimbursement.

Other sections of the book list hotels worldwide that can accommodate travelers dependent on mechanical lifts for transfers from wheelchairs, and worldwide listings for companies renting lift-equipped vans and RVs, and accessible taxi and shuttle systems. For more information send a business-size self-addressed, stamped envelope to Travelin' Talk, P.O. Box 3534, Clarksville, TN 37043. To order copies of the $35 directory, call (615) 552 6670.

And finally, the most complete listing of published material on traveling with disabilities is available from The Disability Bookshop, Twin Peaks Press, P.O. Box 129, Vancouver, WA 98665; (800) 637-2256.

Among the guidebooks aimed at travelers with disabilities are:

Wheels and Waves, by Genie and George Aroyan, $13.95, published by Wheels Aweigh Publishing Co., 17105 San Carlos Blvd., Suite A-107, Fort Myers Beach, FL 33931. The 180-page paperback discusses a number of vessels in detail, from car ferries to elegant cruise ships.

The Real Guide/Able to Travel has articles by and about people with disabilities, discussing accessibility in numerous countries. $20, 603 pages, from Prentice Hall Travel.