Catherine Roberts explains why Responsible Travel is targeting lack of accessibility
The UN reports that one in seven of us live with a disabling condition. That is one billion people.
In the UK, 22% of us have a form of disability, long-standing illness or impairment ranging from physical to mental to cognitive. Almost all these chronic disabilities are invisible.
On top of that, the world’s population is living longer – and more than 46% of people over 60 worldwide live with a disability.
So why is the tourism industry so bad at enabling those with accessibility requirements to travel?
Truly accessible holidays are far and few between and under-marketed. Airports are built like high-sensory labyrinths, while aircraft are designed without consideration for wheelchair users.
Staff without accessibility training can be short on understanding and empathy. Hoteliers are often more willing to add mini bars and hot tubs to rooms than invest in accessibility features.
These things are not little bumps in the road. They work together to prevent one billion people travelling – an obstacle course that is impossible for many to complete.
If we want to share the world with as many people as we can, we need to start making improvements.
After all, the issue isn’t that travellers live with a disability; it’s that we haven’t made travel accessible enough.
There are plenty of relatively easy fixes that could make a substantial difference. Travel websites should be designed with accessibility in mind. Holiday companies should source or purposefully design itineraries for travellers with a whole spectrum of accessibility needs. Currently, only 9% do.
And don’t think adventure tour operators should be off the hook.
We work with many specialist companies that have proved it’s possible to make everything from Antarctic cruises (The Small Ship Cruise Collection) and Botswana safaris (Tribes Travel) to Costa Rica adventures (Il Viaggio Travel) and walking holidays (Peak Me Languages) accessible.
Some 57% of UK adults with disabilities find airports and flying difficult. With crowding, constant noise and fluorescent lights, airports can be a sensory nightmare for all travellers, but especially those on the autism spectrum or with cognitive issues.
Providing extra pre-departure information, familiarisation films, quiet routes and day visits can help.
Lots of improvements would not only help people with accessibility needs. Clear websites, plenty of product choice and on-point signage help every traveller.
There are more difficult and costly, but necessary, fixes. Aircraft should be reconfigured so that wheelchair users can sit in their own chair or mobility aid on board and there should be an accessible toilet.
Accessible car-hire options are needed in every popular self-drive destination from the Garden Route to the Big Sur.
And what about in destination? In the UK, only one third of tourism venues are able to fully accommodate people with autism. Ramps, accessible toilets, car parking spaces, large print menus, hearing loops, Braille signage – all open the door to more travellers.
But what really needs fixing is our attitude towards accessibility. Staff training is essential to avoid passengers being ignored because they don’t ‘look disabled’.
Guide Dogs UK reported that 75% of assistance dog owners have been denied entry to a service. Why can’t we give customers with a disability the same warm welcome any holidaymaker would expect?
We need to educate ourselves as an industry. After all, if you look at it from a purely economic perspective, there is huge demand for accessible tourism services.
The ‘Purple Pound’ is thought to be worth £249 billion in the UK alone and right now we’re not catering for this customer base.
At Responsible Travel, we intend to lead by example. Our CEO, Justin Francis, shared his own story of going through a period of long-term ill health on our blog, saying: “I realised what it felt like to look at a world of travel that wasn’t possible.”
We’re not claiming to be perfect. We’re in the process of increasing our product range and plan to make our website more accessible.
We’ve talked to the tour operators we work with and they’ve provided over 140 accessible holidays to offer customers.
We’ve written an accessible travel guide which we hope shows there are tourism businesses that believe the world is your oyster, whatever your ability.
We’re proud to be part of an industry that has great power to level inequality, bolster economies and create employment. This is another area in which we have the power to make positive change in people’s lives.
It’s time we said, “We want to help you – and this is how we’ll do it.”
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