Madison native strikes a blow for disabled travelers

When Madison last saw Rupa Valdez, she was pursuing her doctoral degree as a research assistant in the health system lab at UW–Madison, and health remains the first and foremost thing on her mind.

While she remains a Badger at heart, Valdez is employed as an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Public Health Sciences, and she’s the founder of the Blue Trunk Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a travel site dedicated to making travel more enjoyable for people with disabilities.

Rupa Valdez

With Blue Trunk, she has a simple proposition — that everyone should be able to explore the world regardless of age, disability, or health condition. The Blue Trunk website is brand new, having been established this spring, and it’s designed not only for the disabled, but also for people with chronic health conditions and older adults who want to plan a trip. It’s also a resource for businesses interested in making their locations more accessible.

Valdez, the daughter of Rajan Sheth, CEO and chairman of Mead & Hunt, developed this passion the hard way. Five years ago, Valdez acquired a mobility-related disability related to tendon damage that makes travel — and living — more difficult. In her 20s, she began to develop health conditions such as allergies and asthma and the medications she took to control them are believed to be the cause of the tendon damage.

“I basically have tendon damage throughout my body, which they think is the result of medications I took in my 20s,” she explains. “It was a slow process. It started in about 2008 and it’s progressed to the point where it’s now hard for me to walk long distances, to type for long periods of time, and to lift heavy objects.”

Hence her motivation to launch an online resource that has been described by Kary Beck, Mead & Hunt’s corporate communications director, as a cross between Expedia, Angie’s List, and Triple-A. The site now provides resources for businesses seeking to improve accessibility, and includes firsthand accounts of traveling with a disability or health condition. It has links to make restaurant reservations and travel arrangements, and blogs to share information, experiences, and best practices.

Valdez calls this “the first iteration” of what Blue Trunk plans to offer, with subsequent phases to include a searchable database on the levels of accessibility for various tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, and other business entities. It will be a worldwide database of tourist spots searchable by accessibility feature.

On that database, travelers will be able to determine in advance whether a restaurant has menus in braille or whether there is ramp access, elevators (and their dimensions), or somebody on site who can communicate in sign language. Also among the solutions are accessibility features such as large print menus and flexible ticketing options, all of which can make or break a trip.

As someone who uses a wheelchair, Valdez has experienced common accessibility related travel hassles — even with the best-made plans. If there are steps to enter a restaurant, but no ramp or elevator or lift access, this can be challenging. Sometimes, even the presence of a lift can be problematic if she has to open a heavier door to enter.

Another challenge is travel to historic places and structures that, given their nature, are difficult to retrofit. “I think about Paris often because of the bathrooms,” she explains. “You go to a restaurant and often the bathrooms are down a flight of steps in the basement, so travel can mean trying to plan on going for these couple of hours and knowing that I’m not going to drink as much water because I’m not going to be able to find a bathroom until we go to a museum.”



It didn’t take long for Valdez to discover she wasn’t alone in facing travel challenges, and she didn’t realize the full extent of accessibility challenges in travel until she spoke to other people with a wide range of disabilities and health conditions.

“It could be something as simple as a high entrance threshold that can make it hard to get in with a wheelchair,” she notes. “A two-inch threshold can be make or break for someone just getting in, depending on what kind of chair they have.”

Valdez, a James Madison Memorial High School and UW–Madison graduate — she has a PhD in industrial and systems engineering — has several teaching responsibilities at UVA, including disability in the workplace and human factors design for community health.

While she doesn’t have any specific data to back it up, she believes that disabled people and those with chronic health conditions represent a pretty significant market for the airlines, hotels, and restaurants.

“It’s not just about disability, it really ties into aging, as well,” she notes. “In terms of what it means to have the travel experience, you might not be somebody who identifies as having a disability, but you might be somebody who has a challenge doing steps because of age. So it’s a bit of a challenge to try to quantify that market in a way that makes sense in one numerical number.”

With Blue Trunk, however, there is solidarity among those numbers.

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