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Disability Travel: Accessibility for all?

More than 15 years ago, Josh Grisdale was exploring Tokyo when he encountered a problem that few of us actively consider. After maneuvering his electric wheelchair off the train, he discovered there was no elevator. The subway staff were quick to help, and carried Grisdale down four flights of stairs. “[To the staff], I was their customer and their responsibility,” Grisdale reflects. “It was a great introduction to Japanese hospitality – with a touch of fear.”

Grisdale adds that disabled visitors to Japan no longer have to endure harrowing adventures being carried up and down stairs. The event, now an amusing anecdote, inspired Grisdale to found Accessible Japan, an organisation which aims to provide physically challenged travelers with up-to-date information and helpful guides on how they can get around Japan as easily as possible.  

Disabled travelers all over world face another big challenge: being ignored. “Travelers with disabilities are often overlooked as a target market, and are therefore not only not marketed to but also not included in planning efforts,” says Sherril York, the executive director of the USA’s National Center on Accessibility.

It is foolish to overlook such a large travel market – according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 56.7 million people live with some sort of a disability. That market will continue to grow – it is estimated that by 2030 nearly 24% of the total U.S. population, approximately 84 million people, will be disabled, with approximately 15% of the population being severely disabled. Furthermore, the disabled travel market is very lucrative as U.S. travelers with disabilities spend annually over $17.3 billion globally. And with roughly 10% of the world population living with a disability, disabled travelers have an enormous amount of clout.

Improved conditions?

But has that clout resulted in generally improved conditions for disabled travelers?

“Conditions are much improved from when we began in 1985,” says Dee Duncan, the executive director of New Directions Travel. “Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, many hotels did not have accessible rooms. I can remember inquiring ahead of time if a hotel in Paris was wheelchair accessible. I was enthusiastically told, ‘yes’, only to find that yes there was a ramp at the entrance to the hotel but three steps down with no ramp into the dining room! We could get in the hotel but could not eat!”

“Today, it is common for hotels to have thought through everything,” adds Duncan, stating that large roll-in showers with handrails tend to be ubiquitous in hotel rooms.

While in the US and other more developed nations wheelchair-stricken travelers have fewer harrowing tales to share, they still face numerous challenges around the world in places with fewer guidelines and legislated access requirements.

“There are many destinations [in South Africa] that are accessible to a degree and then of course, there are some that are not accessible at all,” says Ari Seirlis, CEO of the QuadPara Association of South Africa. “Tourists would need to be selective and carefully research when making a commitment to visiting a particular tourist destination with regard to wheelchair accessibility.”

Whose responsibility?

Many tour companies will take accessibility options into consideration when planning transportation and accommodation. But what about time?

According to Dori Conlin at Able Trek Tours, allowing ample time is crucial.  “Our special needs groups tend to move at a slower pace and it isn’t uncommon that something unanticipated may come up that delays the group,” says Conlin.

Governments play an important role in creating an accessible environment. “We are seeing better accommodations in both transportation and accessibility for travelers with intellectual and developmental disabilities primarily to due to the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA],” says Nick Abel, the community outreach specialist at Trips Inc.

“We rely on the ADA to assure that accessibility and assistance is available to our travelers of all needs. It has in many ways improved destinations’ awareness and efforts to accommodate people with disabilities.”

City planners also make significant contributions to enhancing the travel experience for disabled visitors. “It would be nice to see better explanations of accessible routes in English for travelers,” Grisdale says about traveling in Japan. “Sometimes you need to take a different route than other people but the explanation [about the different routes] is only in Japanese.”

“Staff training on disability awareness and inclusion are key aspects of providing programs and facilities for people with disabilities, whether they are local recreation visitors or travelers,” says York. “Training is as integral to providing a welcoming and inclusive experience for people with disabilities as it to creating a safe environment for employees and visitors.”

Organizations and companies, York adds, can help make travel more accessible to people with disabilities by taking the first step of creating a culture of inclusion, which involves actively embracing disabled travelers and seeking their input in helping create memorable travel experiences.

The culture of inclusion is vibrant at Traveleyes. The company pairs a sighted traveler with a blind traveler, which Traveleyes’ customer manager Boglarka Szabo believes mutually benefits both parties. “The sighted traveler shares their sight with their blind partner and in return, receives a discount on their holiday of up to 50%. Not only this, but they also gain a better insight into the sensory world around them, thanks to their partner.”

Szabo adds that Traveleyes chooses to mix up the groupings as the company views itself as a social holiday experience that strives to help its guests bond with other travelers in their Group.

Spurred on by the difficulties many disabled travelers face with communicating in Japan, Grisdale created a small vocabulary list for disabled travelers on Accessible Japan’s website. “The biggest challenge for disabled travelers is that the vocabulary that they need is different than what most people need,” says Grisdale, as words such as “wheelchair,” “accessible,” and “disability” are not usually found in travel guides.

Regardless of what unique challenges companies and groups face in their quest to provide memorable experiences for disabled people, one should heed the words of Abel: “Our travelers want to explore, make friends and have a blast just like everyone.”

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