Travel

New website aims to help special needs families

Meghann Harris’s children, Henry and Eliza, are veteran travelers.

Meghann Harris’s children, Henry and Eliza, are veteran travelers.

It seems like there’s a website for everything, from finding a potential spouse to watching endless cat videos, but until now, there’s hasn’t been a comprehensive travel website for special needs families. At least, Meghann Harris, whose daughter has atypical Rett syndrome (a neurodevelopmental disorder), couldn’t find one she thought covered all the bases.

“I looked around,” she said. “I was so surprised at finding nothing.” Harris, who loves to travel, lives in Maine with her two children, Eliza, 8, and Henry, 6. Henry has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which has its own set of issues. Regardless, Harris, a single mom, has taken them everywhere from Hawaii to the Bahamas.

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Harris’s site SpecialGlobe (specialglobe.com), which she founded with a childhood friend and launched in February, is designed to be a one-stop site to assist families and caretakers of special needs individuals to research, plan, and book a vacation that meets their individual needs.

While she has worked to make sure her children’s individual challenges haven’t stood in the way of her family traveling, she wants to help other families who may feel that’s impossible. Harris says some people may think it’s too hard or are afraid to expose their kids to potential ridicule.

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“A lot of families will leave that kid at home with a relative,” Harris said. “Or one parent will stay at home, while the other one takes the other kids on vacation. These families are very private and want to protect their kids.”

Private they may be, but they certainly aren’t unusual. The most recent statistics from the National Survey of Children’s Health estimate that there are more than 14.6 million children with special needs in the United States alone — that’s almost 20 percent of all children newborn to 17. Add in their families and that’s millions of people touched by special needs kids in some way.

Currently on SpecialGlobe, families can find detailed itineraries (researched by Harris for now); an in-house travel agent with a focus on special needs travel; tips from other families; and partnerships and discounts with rental car and vacation home businesses.

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One person who says she would have benefited from such a site years ago is Sonia Garufi, a businesswoman from Roslindale whose 12-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. Over the years, she and her family have done a lot of research to find the right balance for their vacations. Garufi’s strategy to acclimate her son to traveling was to take overnights to local hotels when he was younger.

“We knew we needed to make the transitions really easy,” she said. “You want to minimize steps. Long lines, crowded places, and too much noise can be triggers.”

Stories and tips like that are exactly what Harris hopes her site can help to broadcast. “I want it to be a sort of TripAdvisor for special needs families,” she said. “With a forum where families can talk about their experiences.”

Considering that the site already has more than 15,000 Twitter followers and has caught the attention of the CEO of LinkedIn (Harris used the professional networking site to build her business and was asked to feature her story in a video), chances are pretty good she’ll realize her goal.

As for Garufi, she says any accommodations she needs to make are worth it. Her family has a trip to Paris planned, and her son is eagerly anticipating eating lots of croissants and climbing the Eiffel Tower. Instead of a hotel, the family booked an apartment, so they could cook some of their own meals and enjoy more space.

“You might have to travel a different way,” Garufi said. “But you also might discover something you never knew your kid liked.”

Kim Foley MacKinnon can be reached at kimfoleymackinnon@gmail.com.
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