The travel industry ignores people with disabilities
Traveling is still a time of systematic discrimination for people with disabilities. Non-disabled individuals do not face the same barriers, and this can stop them from taking a holiday or limit their options.
One survey revealed that even before COVID-19 was released, 52% of UK adults with disabilities had not been on holiday in the past 12 months.
It is well-known why. The three most important things for disabled people are not always available: appropriate facilities, good information, and a positive attitude from others.
Many countries, including the UK, have passed legislation that addresses these inequalities. In the Declaration on People with Disabilities, the United Nations affirms that disabled people have the right to participate in culture, leisure, sports, and recreation.
This kind of political action would seem to indicate that disabled people are given equal access to travel. When I interviewed disabled travelers and people working in ecotourism in the UK and other countries, it was clear that holiday providers do not value their disabled clients.
Some, for example, only want to follow the rules. Some hotels do not believe there is enough demand for guests with disabilities, so they only make practical changes (such as installing ramps) if the law requires it.
A disabled traveler described how he told an ecolodge’s manager, “You only need to fix two things in the room. It will be fine.”
The manager responded: “Why bother?” The manager replied: “We don’t get enough money from you guys to justify it.”
Some business owners were motivated to keep up with “good practices” but found it expensive to make such changes. This group believed that being disability-friendly was good for business. However, their efforts were incomplete. They only featured in specific parts of the website, for example, or they only catered to one type of disability.
One participant in the study noted that: “Instead of making the entire place accessible mobility-wise, we only make sure that at least two units and the major public areas are.” This alternative seems to have worked.”
It might seem strange that ecotourism, a form that emphasizes ethics and sustainability, is not leading the industry to remove barriers for disabled travelers.
Recent research has found that businesses with ecotourism accreditations of the highest levels are still not able to meet the needs of guests with disabilities.
Only 2% of websites included in the study, which was based in Australia, had an information package that people with disabilities could download. While some businesses consider themselves disability-friendly facilities, they tend to focus on wheelchair accessibility.
Only 40% of the websites offered any information for wheelchair users. 6% mentioned visual impairments, and 8% said hearing loss. Only 8% of websites mentioned intellectual disabilities.
Nearly all websites did not extend simple courtesies such as captions (also known as alternative text) that explain to people who have visual disabilities what a photo depicts or subtitles for video materials to assist people with hearing impairments. A quarter of businesses asked disabled visitors to call them before their visit to inquire about the facilities they offer.
Access is the key. Shutterstock/Kavun Halyna
Some operators also believe that ensuring disabled people get the same quality of service as non-disabled customers is a condition for being in business.
It is important to expand this type of approach. Only when tourism companies start investing in their adaptations will disabled people have a real right to holiday. It is important to make provisions for not just wheelchair users but also for other disability groups.
This also includes updating websites, training staff, and adapting business practices to ensure that they can serve disabled guests sensitively and appropriately.
Around a billion people are estimated to be disabled in the world. This represents around 15% of the global population. It should be uncomfortable for everyone if the tourism industry does not want to treat these guests as equals. If society wants travel to be seen as a human right, then it should also be a right of everyone.