There are one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, who are characterized as disabled. However, being disabled does not mean that these individuals stop living life or don’t have a desire to travel and take part in other hobbies. While there are challenges to accessible travel (and adjusting to life as a disabled person in general), many people face these head on so that they can pursue their love of adventure.
This article will address why accessible travel is important to tourism, what barriers exist, and what you can do to help so that those individuals with disabilities who want to satisfy their wanderlust can do so more easily.
What is Accessible Travel and Tourism?
Accessible travel and tourism have the goal of making travel inclusive for everyone, including people with disabilities. While many times, accessible travel is associated with people with mobility problems, it actually encompasses other impairments as well. These can include both temporary and permanent disabilities and involve impairments to speech, vision, hearing, communication, sensory processing, and physical limitations such as people who require walking aids and wheelchair users.
Accessible travel addresses the needs of these individuals by providing barrier-free destinations and facilities, easy-to-use and accessible marketing through websites, reservations systems that allow people to book adapted services to meet their needs, transportation that can be used by all, accessible activities and attractions, and services provided and delivered by trained staff. Furthermore, accessible travel and tourism make the effort to allow people with various disabilities to participate and experience as much of a destination as possible (just like any other traveler would hope to do) while addressing their individual needs.
Why is accessible travel and tourism important?
It’s the Right Thing to Do
From a human standpoint, making the world more accessible is just the right thing to do. Everyone should have the same opportunities to explore, fulfill their wanderlust, and experience new cultures. Just because there are many barriers to accessible travel and tourism currently, doesn’t mean that changes can’t be made to be more inclusive. Instead of expecting people to adapt to the world (which is ableism), we can make efforts to adapt the world to the people who live in it.
You Could Become Disabled at Any Time
People with disabilities are the largest minority group that you could become a part of at any time. Permanent or temporary disability can be the result of aging, accidents (i.e. vehicle accidents, sporting mishaps, etc), and surgeries gone wrong. Think of your parents or grandparents and how their abilities have changed as they have gotten older. Why should they not have the opportunity to travel or do what they love just because their vision has declined, their hearing has become impaired or their mobility has gotten worse?
Helping change the world now to be more inclusive and accessible means that when you or a loved one potentially joins this group of people, making that transition can be a little easier because there are not as many barriers to have to face and overcome.
It’s an Untapped Travel Community That Can Lead to More Financial Profit
Lastly, if the above reasons mentioned aren’t convincing enough, let’s talk about financial benefits. According to the Open Door Organization, people with disabilities spend $58.7 billion dollars on accessible travel. This figure doesn’t even account for the caregivers or family that often travels with them.
As a largely untapped tourism sector, this means that businesses and tourism boards are missing out on an area that could be bringing in increased revenue. By making relatively small investments upfront to adapt to the needs of the potential clients in this market, you could be expanding your client base and therefore increasing your profits.
What are the barriers to travel and tourism for persons with disabilities?
Lack of Accurate Information About Accessibility
There’s nothing more frustrating than doing research about how accessible an attraction or destination is only to find out that the information is wrong. Likewise, it’s horrible when you try to do your research only to find that no information on accessibility exists. These commonly asked questions are not often addressed but are really beneficial to know.
It is important to understand that not all disabilities and needs are the same. For example, when something is hearing accessible (like a hotel room), it doesn’t mean that it will meet the needs of someone who requires a mobility accessible room. Even if you have people with the same disability, their needs can vary from person to person.
Similarly, people often don’t fully understand what makes something accessible. When talking about whether a trail is wheelchair accessible, most people assume it has to be paved (which automatically ensures accessibility in their minds). In reality, however, it is not only the surface of a trail that is important but the slope and cross slope as well.
Lack of Accessible Accommodations
A destination may offer wonderful accessible activities and attractions, however, if there isn’t the availability of accessible accommodations, it makes visiting very difficult. Even if these hotels exist, if they do not offer pictures or details about their accessible rooms, or have a way to directly book this type of room to guarantee a person gets what they need, it makes visitors reluctant to stay at that property. There have been way too many occurrences where a person with a disability shows up to a hotel only to find out that their room is not accessible, or that their room is hearing accessible but not mobility accessible.
Another common problem is that a person receives the proper accessible hotel room, but that it has barriers which make it nonfunctional. Examples of this are when there is a glass shower door which makes transfers almost impossible, a wall in front of the toilet (again preventing easy transfer) or other obstacles that are for decor and prevent the use of accessible features of the room.
Many of the accessible accommodations available are set up for two people and do not address the needs of families. It is possible that one of the parents is disabled and has children, or that a child is disabled and needs to be close to their parents. Sometimes connecting rooms can address this issue, but not always. It would be very beneficial to have condos, cruise cabins or larger hotel rooms that can address these needs.
Lack of Accessible Restaurants
Restaurants that have a step to enter and do not have an alternative entrance for wheelchair users (or only offer outdoor seating for people with mobility issues), have narrow hallways, and crowded seating areas with the lack of an accessible pathway are all considered inaccessible. In addition, not all restaurants offer restrooms that are accessible. All of these are important features to people with disabilities.
Other factors that may be important to customers are the noise level (for people with hearing impairments and people with sensory processing issues), and lighting (for visual impairments).
No Accessible Restrooms
Aside from the limited availability of accessible restrooms in restaurants, there is often a lack of accessible bathrooms in general. Even if a place has an accessible bathroom, barriers that are often encountered are:
- Steps required to access
- Not large enough for a wheelchair to maneuver
- No grab bars
- Low toilet height
- Accessible restroom available but used for storage
Limited Options for Accessible Tours
Finding an accessible tour (both private and public) is one of the biggest challenges when visiting a destination. While some continents and countries have more options than others, all present some sort of challenge. They are often hard to find, and typically are private (and therefore more expensive).
There are very few group tours that offer accessibility. People with disabilities want options. They want to be able to choose from land-based tours as well as accessible shore excursions. While some cruise lines do offer these accommodations, they are often very limited and consist of driving by an attraction rather than fully visiting it.
Access to Accessible Transportation
Whether someone wants to join a tour or explore a town or city on their own, accessible transportation is necessary but often hard to come by. Accessible public transportation is not always available or it is not widely advertised or difficult to use. Tours may travel to accessible (or partially accessible) places but not have adaptations to make it accessible.
International travel is often desired, but not easily attained due to barriers to air travel. Airlines are notorious for damaging mobility equipment, not having truly accessible bathrooms on board and overall being an unpleasant experience. There are organizations such as All Wheels Up that are trying to change this, however, they need public and organizational support to encourage airlines to change their practices.
Airlines would rather invest in a superior first class experience, with pods and rooms to satisfy the luxury traveler rather than dedicating space on the planes so that wheelchair users can remain in their custom chairs during the flight or designing and implementing truly accessible bathrooms on their planes.
Inaccessible Sidewalks and Streets
Even if a town or city is small and allows for people to walk/roll to various locations, if the sidewalks and streets are not accessible, even this can be a challenge. Sidewalks that are uneven, unmaintained, narrow, or are blocked with bikes and parked cars are inaccessible to both people using canes to navigate for decreased vision and people using mobility aids. In addition, when there are no curb cuts or change in texture for the visually impaired, it can make traversing sidewalks dangerous. A lack of accessible parking is also an issue.
Unfortunately, when accessible travel and tourism options are available, they cost at least twice as much as non accessible travel (sometimes even more). If more accessible travel opportunities were available, there would be more competition and better prices. This could lead to more people with disabilities traveling and more trips taken within a given time period.
Balancing Preserving Historic Character with Adding Accessibility Features
In the disability community, labeling something historic is often seen as a cop out for not wanting to take the effort to explore new and ingenious ways of incorporating accessibility. While it is widely understood and appreciated that it is important to maintain and preserve the historic character of a place, there can also be ways to increase accessibility without changing the integrity of the attraction.
One place that has done a good job at this is the Colosseum in Rome. There is an elevator that allows access to the various levels. More effort could be taken to think of ways to increase accessibility without damaging the history of a building. Portable ramps are one example, but the use of virtual reality and other technological advances should also be considered.
11 Things You Can Do to Make Travel More Inclusive
Oftentimes it’s not that people don’t want the world to be more inclusive, they just aren’t sure what they can do to help. This section will offer tangible things you can do to make travel more accessible and inclusive to people of all abilities.
1. Ask Questions
It is always better to ask questions about a person’s needs rather than just make assumptions. When working with a client, ask for specifics about what their abilities are, what their needs are and what would make them most comfortable. This will allow them to feel like they are being heard, cared about and that their needs will be properly addressed.
Likewise, as a nondisabled traveler, ask tour operators, boards, hotels etc about how they accommodate people with disabilities. Asking these questions brings the conversation to the forefront and shows companies that accessible travel and tourism matters. When enough people show interest, ask questions and address their desire for more inclusion, it can help persuade them to start offering (or continue to offer) these services.
2. Train Staff
Offer proper training to people working in the travel sector. This includes airline staff that will assist in transfers and loading people on the plane, hotel staff, tour operators etc. Training should cover the types of disabilities and how different adaptations are made to assist them, that not all disabilities and adaptations meet the same needs, and how they can address the needs of people with disabilities.
Another aspect that should be covered is how to communicate with people who are disabled. This cannot be stressed enough as people with disabilities are often seen as incompetent, unable to speak for themselves or just ignored. You should ALWAYS talk to the individual directly and not the caregiver about the individual, try not to make assumptions about someone’s needs, and always ask before automatically helping or touching someone’s equipment or aids. You should ask, “Can I help you?” or “How can I best help you?” before doing something without their permission.
3. Provide Accurate Accessibility Information
Sometimes people are unsure of how to provide accurate information on accessibility or the type of information that should be given. When describing accessibility use specific language and avoid generalities. The term “wheelchair friendly” is often misleading and inaccurate. Instead, talk about the presence (or absence) of some of the items mentioned below. Helpful information includes:
- What surfaces are like
- Any slopes present…. What degree
- Height of beds as well as how much room is underneath
- Show pictures of trails, rooms, transportation etc.
- Whether steps are present (how many, steepness, handrails available) as well as if there are alternative ramped pathways
- The availability of accessible restrooms
- Where rooms are located (floor, noise level etc)
- Whether public transportation is accessible with a lift or ramp
4. Be Mindful of Possible Barriers
Unless you are personally affected by a disability (or know someone that is) it can be easy to not give accessibility a thought during your travels or day to day life. If you want to help travel and tourism become more accessible, it will require that you take more of a conscious effort to look at accessibility at a destination, existing barriers and possible alternatives.
When you are out, pretend that you have a friend who happens to be disabled with you. Would they be able to do what you are doing? Ask questions if there isn’t a noticeable option for accessibility.
Also, consider the following factors:
- Take note of available accessible restrooms
- Are there places with excess noise
- When steps are present, is there an alternative ramped route?
- What are the surfaces like?
5. Invest in Adaptive Equipment
For those who provide travel services, investing in adaptive equipment will help you grow your client base and offer better accessible options to travelers. Some of the types of equipment you could utilize are:
- Adapted vehicles
- Sound Systems that can accommodate hearing aids
- Offering options to hire sign language interpreters
- Portable ramps to increase access to sites, restaurants etc
- Printed maps or written information about the tour
6. Advocate for Accessible Tourism
You can help be an advocate by telling lawmakers you want to see legislation that supports accessible tourism, support policies and laws that allow for better access (and encourage people you know to do the same) and talk about the benefits of tourism that is inclusive. You can also promote and support (by using their services) companies and organizations that are inclusive even if you are not disabled. If you find a company that doesn’t offer accessible services, encourage them to do so by talking about how many people would benefit and possibly become customers.
7. Create Accessible Tours
Create incredibly accessible tours that allow people the chance to really experience an area. This means that they won’t be stuck in a vehicle all day, but be able to get out, take photos, and tour multiple attractions (not just see it from the outside). These tours would also ensure that their participants had access to accessible bathrooms as well as meals or snacks.
Since many people (whether disabled or not) want to see the most popular sites, every effort would be made for these to be included on the tour. The company would also provide adapted transportation and consider using portable ramps to increase access to attractions. You could even partner with local organizations to provide unique and exciting experiences (like adaptive surfing, beach experiences, specialized wheelchairs for hiking, cave visits, four-wheeling, etc).
Having multiple ways for presenting information (ie written vs verbal) and allowing for multi-sensory experiences which include touch, sight, and sound are also good practices.
When offering information on your tours, you should note which stops are outside vs inside visits, describe any possible barriers, and what to expect. Sometimes providing a detailed itinerary is helpful.
8. Consider hiring a disability consultant
If you are a property offering accommodations, consider hiring a disability consultant so that you go above and beyond meeting basic accessibility requirements. Consultants can give you helpful and useful information regarding possible barriers and solutions.
If you are an activity provider and are unsure about the accessibility of certain destinations or how to best incorporate accessibility into your services, consultants can offer this information and more to make sure you are providing excellent service. They can also sometimes help to train your staff.
9. Have an Accessible Website
An accessible website will help you market to your new audience and make it easy for them to obtain information on the services you provide. Your site should have a large contrast between your background and text colors, and include pictures of rooms as well as potential barriers of buildings, trails, and activities. These photos could be of steps, cobblestones, other surfaces, slopes, underneath the bed, bathroom, etc. Of course, all your photos should also include Alt Text to describe them so they can be easily translated to readers that are used to assist the visually impaired.
10. Have Recommendations on Where People Can Rent Adaptive Equipment
While many times people travel with their own adaptive equipment, this is not always the case. Sometimes they will choose to rent it when they get to their destination. If you can provide such equipment and aids, that is fantastic. If this is not something you offer, it would be very valuable to your customers if you had recommendations or knowledge on where they could rent these items.
Items that are most sought after are bathroom aids (such as shower chairs and raised toilet seats), manual wheelchairs, mobility scooters, beach wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen concentrators, patient lifts and hospital beds.
11. Provide Options
It is horrible when you may only have one option to meet your accessibility needs. Having choices will better ensure that you will find a product or service that will not only address your needs but meet your interests as well. There are many things that can be offered that would really improve accessible travel and tourism.
Here are just a few products and services that would make a positive impact in the accessible travel community:
- Adapted condos
- Hotel rooms that sleep more than two people
- Connecting hotel rooms (one of which is accessible)
- A variety of accessible tour options at each location
- Cruise ship staterooms that can sleep families or connect
- Accessible tender systems that allow guests with physical disabilities to go ashore when the ship cannot dock
- Multiple accessible shore excursions that allow for stops and inside visits
Accessible Travel FAQs
Are there any specially designed trips or tours available for people with disabilities?
Yes, there are several companies offering specially designed trips and tours for people with disabilities. These can include tours tailored to specific needs or interests, such as visual impairments, or generally accessible tours that are suitable for everyone. Many of these companies provide a range of services, such as specialized transport, accommodations, adapted activities, and expert guides.
What companies offer accessible travel services?
There are several companies specializing in accessible travel, such as Accessible Journeys, Handicap Travel, and Accessible Vacations. These companies often provide a range of tailored services, such as accessible transportation, accommodations, and tours.
How do I find accessible tours or guided experiences?
To find accessible tours or guided experiences, contact local tourist information centers or tourism boards for advice and recommendations. You can also search online for companies that specialize in providing accessible tours and experiences. It’s important to research the experience before booking to make sure that all of the features and facilities are adapted to meet your needs.
Are there any charitable organizations that offer accessible travel services?
Yes, some charitable organizations offer accessible travel services. These can include organizations such as Access-A-Ride, which provides accessible transportation for disabled travelers, and Mobility International USA, which offers a range of adaptive services for disabled travelers.
Is there any travel insurance available for people with disabilities?
Yes, there are many travel insurance policies available for people with disabilities. These can include coverage for emergency medical expenses, lost baggage, trip cancellation or interruption, and other related costs. It’s important to research the policies and coverage available to ensure that you’re getting the right level of protection for your needs.
How is accessible travel helpful for people with disabilities?
Accessible travel is highly beneficial for people with disabilities because it allows them to enjoy aspects of travel that might not otherwise be accessible. Accessible travel can help to minimize the stress and chaos of traditional travel, as well as provide access to specialized attractions and activities tailored to meet the needs of travelers with disabilities.
What are the best tips for planning an accessible trip?
The best tips for planning an accessible trip include researching accessibility options in the destination you’re visiting, booking accessible accommodations, and familiarizing yourself with any public transport and transportation services that are adapted for disabled travelers.
It’s also important to be aware of any potential language barriers and to make sure that you have all the necessary medical supplies and documents with you.
What resources are available to help make travel accessible?
There are numerous resources available to help make travel more accessible. These include organizations such as Open Doors Organization, which offers a range of resources for disabled travelers. Additionally, some websites provide information on accessible travel, such as Accessible Travel Online and Wheelchair Travel.
What types of accommodations are suitable for people with disabilities?
When it comes to accommodations for people with disabilities, there are a variety of options. Many hotels now offer wheelchair-accessible rooms, and some also provide other accessibility features, such as hearing loops and tactile indicators for the visually impaired.
It’s important to research the accessibility of the accommodation before booking to ensure it meets your needs.
What tips should I follow to ensure a successful accessible trip?
Here are a few extra tips to follow to ensure a successful accessible trip.
- Make sure that you have all of the necessary medical supplies and documents with you.
- Research the accessibility of the destinations you plan to visit and book accommodations that meet your needs.
- Make sure you know how to find accessible transport options and familiarize yourself with public transport in the area.
What should I do if I have a disability-related complaint or issue during my trip?
If you have a disability-related complaint or issue during your trip, it’s important to report it as soon as possible. Contact the hotel, transport provider, tour operator, or another relevant company to make sure that your complaint is addressed and resolved.
How can I make sure my journey is as safe and comfortable as possible for everyone?
There are a few ways to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for everyone. Make sure that any equipment or supplies you need are easily accessible.
Bring a companion if necessary, and let the transport or accommodation provider know in advance if you’ll need any additional help during your trip.
Make sure that your accommodation meets all of your accessibility needs, and research local accessibility resources in advance to make sure that you’re aware of any possibilities or limitations.
Accessible Travel and Tourism Conclusions
While there are several barriers to accessible travel, these can be addressed and overcome with practical solutions. When organizations within travel and tourism help to address these issues, they can increase customers and clients which can lead to more profits all while helping to make the world a better and more inclusive place. While implementing these solutions may take time, money, and effort, they will be worth it and possibly benefit people you love and care about someday.
Kristin was born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy, which impacts her mobility, strength, endurance, and breathing. Despite this challenge, she has traveled across the United States and abroad (17 countries and counting) and wants to share her accessible travel information with others on her website World on Wheels Blog.