By Dalia Colón
Navigating an airport can be challenging for any traveler. Add a disability, the task becomes even more difficult.
Anne Hatton knows this all too well. The 60-year-old Fort Myers resident works as an assistive technology instructional specialist for Lighthouse of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit that offers support services for people with visual impairments, such as Hatton herself.
Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, Hatton is legally blind. Her vision has never been better than 20/80.
“I can still see the shapes of things, but not detail. I can’t read any print. I use screen reading technology, which changes all the text to speech,” Hatton said.
Her most recent flight out of Southwest Florida International Airport was to attend the Assistive Technology Industry Association conference 150 miles away in Orlando.
“When you’re blind, [flying is] the cheapest, easiest way [to travel],” Hatton said. “I don’t want to spend six hours on a Greyhound.”
Southwest Florida International Airport (airport code RSW) is a hub for travelers flying into and out of the Fort Myers area. Open since 1983, the airport welcomes millions of passengers each year.
The following is information for travelers with seen or unseen disabilities who visit Southwest Florida International Airport.
Employee training: Currently, there’s no mandatory disability training for Lee County Port Authority staff. However, there is voluntary autism training for front-line employees. In addition, Employees of the Transportation Security Administration and individual airlines receive varying training.
Sunflower program: The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a symbol that enables people with invisible disabilities to access the help they need. Examples include autism, respiratory conditions, visual or auditory impairment, chronic pain and many other conditions. RSW is in the process of adding the Sunflower program to better assist these passengers. To learn more about the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, go to this website: https://hiddendisabilitiesstore.com/
What to Expect
Hatton has traveled all over the world, flying out of various airports. Among her favorite trips were Alaska, Germany and hiking the Appalachian Trail with a sited guide. Unfortunately for Hatton, getting there is not half the fun.
Typically, a transportation service drops off Hatton and her guide dog, a 2-year-old goldador named Angelo, at the airport curb.
“The hardest part is from the curb to the door, finding the ticketing counter. Because once you’re there, TSA Cares can help,” she said. “It’s that first 300 feet.”
David Alvarez agrees. The 49-year-old lives in Fort Myers, where he owns a vending machine business. Alvarez, who is diabetic, has always had limited vision—even more so after a botched eye surgery in 2015.
Alvarez flies out of RSW frequently with his guide dog, a yellow lab named Kendrick.
He advises passengers with visual impairment or any other special needs to flag down an airport staffer, airline employee or even a fellow traveler for help getting to the ticket counter.
“People are always walking by,” Alvarez said. “They don’t mind.”
- Before your trip, visit the airport’s website, which is ADA compliant. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the airport’s services. The website is https://www.ifly.com/
- If you need any special accommodations, the airport strongly recommends contacting your airline in advance.
- TSA Cares is the Transportation Security Administration’s helpline for passengers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances. It allows travelers to request additional assistance during the security screening process. Seventy-two hours before your trip, contact TSA Cares with any questions or concerns about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. Call (855) 787-2227 or complete the form at this link: https://www.tsa.gov/contact-center/form/cares
- Travelers on the autism spectrum can find more information about TSA screenings at this link: https://www.tsa.gov/videos/tsa-cares-screening-travelers-autism-spectrum-0
- If you need wheelchair assistance, the airport strongly recommends contacting your airline to request this service in advance. Each airline contracts its own skycap service provider. Skycap workers can also assist with luggage, strollers and car seats. You can find more information about wheelchair accessibility at this website: https://wheelchairtravel.org/fort-myers/airport/
- Parking: Parking for passengers with disabilities is available 24/7 in all airport areas, including short-term and long-term parking. Be sure to display your disabled parking tag in your car.
- Short-term parking: Upon entering the short-term parking garage, you’ll find designated disabled parking spaces next to the elevators and walkway to the terminal. If you need immediate assistance, use the push-button emergency call boxes located throughout the parking facilities.
- Long-term parking: To get from the long-term parking lot to the terminal curb, use the free door-to-door shuttle service. The shuttle driver will help you with your luggage. Wheelchair-accessible shuttles are available. To request an accessible shuttle, notify the parking attendant when you enter the lot.
- Elevators: In the parking garage, elevators are located on the northeast and northwest sides on all three levels. In addition, elevators are available throughout the terminal to gain access to the ticketing lobby, baggage claim, gates D-9A and D-9B, as well as U.S. Customs.
- Taxis: Taxis are located directly across from the terminal building. The airport’s on-demand taxi fleet includes two ADA lift-equipped vehicles. Before your arrival time, contact MBA Airport Transportation at 239-225-0428 to request an accessible taxi.
- Car rentals: Unlike at many airports, the major car rental companies are located directly across the street from the terminal building. There’s no need to take a shuttle bus. Each car rental check-in area features an ADA counter.
- Public transportation: LeeTran is the bus service operated by the Lee County Transit Department. All of LeeTran’s full-sized buses are accessible for passengers with disabilities. You’ll find the LeeTran bus stop across from Door 2 on the Arrivals level in the Commercial Lane. For more information about riding LeeTran, visit this website: https://www.leegov.com/leetran
- Ride shares: If you’re using Uber, Lyft or another ride share company, arrange pickup at the terminal. Contact your driver directly to arrange a meetup location.
- Other ground transportation: Southwest Florida International Airport provides a list of approved companies that provide pre-reserved, shared ride, limo services and other ground transportation. You’ll find this list at https://flyrsw.com/othertrans/
Inside the Airport
In the terminal, Southwest Florida International Airport features accommodations for travelers with disabilities, including the following:
- Luggage and wheelchair assistance: Skycap luggage and wheelchair assistance are provided through each airline. If you need wheelchair assistance and did not request it in advance, you may request it at your airline’s curbside ticket counter or at the ticket counter inside the terminal on the day of travel.
- Restrooms: All public restrooms throughout the terminal, including Companion Care facilities, are wheelchair accessible.
- Security screenings: Each security checkpoint features an ADA lane. Be patient during the screening process. “Walking through the X-ray machine… sometimes I brush the sides and have to start over,” Hatton said. If you use a service animal, at no point should you be separated from your animal. “Never hand your dog to anyone ever,” Hatton said. “That’s your eyes. That’s your mobility device.” For more information about navigating airport security with a service animal, visit this link: https://www.tsa.gov/blog/2019/05/15/tsa-travel-tips-navigating-airport-guide-dog
- Hearing impaired passengers: Visual paging is available. This is a messaging system that displays customer service messages, emergency notification and other information that is conveyed over the loudspeaker.
- Sensory issues: RSW does not provide a designated quiet place for passengers with autism or other sensory issues.
- Animal relief areas: For service animals and pets, relief areas are located in the grassy areas at both ends of the terminal building on the lower level, near Doors 1 and 6, near the gazebo and loading dock; and across the street from baggage claim on the lower level near the parking garage. There are no animal relief areas within the terminal or concourses. However, RSW is in the midst of a $331 million terminal expansion project. This will include an animal relief area post-security, allowing passengers to remain in the secured area while walking their pets and service animals.
- Visual paging can be requested through any courtesy phone in the terminal. The visual paging message is displayed throughout the terminal facility on the Flight Information Display Screens every 30 seconds for a period of 5 minutes.
Hatton and Alverez offer some final pieces of advice for travelers with any type of disability.
Bring helpful tools. Alvarez carries a card from his alma mater, Affiliated Blind of Louisiana Training Center, that alerts others to his disability. People with invisible disabilities may want to wear a medical ID bracelet. When Hatton doesn’t travel with her guide dog, Angelo, she uses a cane. She also uses text-to-speech screen readers on her electronic devices. In the future, she’d like to see JAWS (Job Access With Speech) added to all airport kiosks.
Explain what’s helpful—and what’s not. TSA agents often want to put Hatton in a wheelchair. But she doesn’t need a wheelchair. She needs someone to guide her in the right direction, with as much specificity as possible. “Even with very well trained TSA [agents] have a tendency to say, ‘Ma’am over here.’ I have no idea [where they’re telling me to go,” Hatton said.
Ask anyone for help. Don’t just rely on airport or airline employees. If you need someone to point you to the ticket counter, help you make sense of the muffled loudspeaker announcements or help with anything else, ask whoever’s nearby. When Alvarez travels with his guide dog, Kendrick, he finds that most fellow passengers are happy to help. Besides, it gives them an excuse to interact with Kendrick. “Most people love the dog. They want to talk to the dog.”
Be restroom-savvy. “No two bathrooms are designed the same,” Hatton said. She recommends asking a woman or a child, whom she has found to be particularly helpful.
Ask for help when you deplane. Ask a flight attendant to take you to your gate, baggage claim or ground transportation. Often, they’re already heading in that direction.
Use a travel agent. For an overall smooth trip, Hatton recommends using a disability-friendly travel agent. This person can help you find accessible transportation, activities and accommodations throughout your trip. Hatton’s travel agent organized a Bahamas cruise for Hatton and her friends. “She’s amazing,” Hatton said. “She arranged for a group of 14 of us with guide dogs.” After all, the best part of traveling is what happens when you leave the airport.
Hotels: Here are some accessible hotels located near Southwest Florida International Airport, courtesy of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
Best Western – Fort Myers Airport Inn
Courtyard by Marriott at I-75 & Gulf Coast Town Center
Crowne Plaza Fort Myers
Drury Inn & Suites Ft. Myers Airport FGCU
Embassy Suites by Hilton Ft. Myers-Estero
Hampton Inn Fort Myers Airport
Hilton Garden Inn Airport/FGCU
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fort Myers Airport
Holiday Inn Ft Myers Airport at Town Center
Home2 Suites by Hilton Fort Myers Airport
Homewood Suites by Hilton Fort Myers Airport
Residence Inn Fort Myers at I-75 and Gulf Coast Town Center
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Fort Myers Airport