PHOTO: An Individual in a wheelchair points the way forward for accessibility. (photo courtesy of Thinkstock)
Maybe you walk slow, use a walker, are in a wheelchair or have some other form of disability. Perhaps you’ve never thought you could travel.
Author Candy Harrington thinks otherwise.
Harrington has written about accessible travel for nearly 20 years and is the founding editor of Emerging Horizons Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers.
Her most recent book is Barrier-Free Travel: Favorite Florida State Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Her other books include There Is Room at the Inn: Inns and B&Bs for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, 101 Accessible Vacations: Travel ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, and 22 Accessible Road Trips: Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers.
I recently caught up with Candy to chat about her projects and advice.
You are known as the ‘guru of accessible travel’. How did you start writing about this?
Some 20 years ago, I was writing mainstream travel—what I considered fluff—and I wanted to cover something with more substance. In retrospect, I was really bored.
A friend suggested accessible travel, and I thought about it for about three seconds and decided to go for it.
I had a lot to learn, but I’m a journalist and I know how to research, so it really is the perfect fit. Today I have a huge personal connection, as I have lots of friends that I’ve met as the result of my work.
What are the challenges and changes in an industry you've covered for 20 years? And, are other countries better at accessibility compared to the United States?
Access has greatly improved over the past 20 years. We are getting past the “required” things, and now I’m seeing some creative individuals make things like hot air balloons wheelchair-accessible.
Of course, we still could see some improvement, especially in the transportation industry. I’d like to see more accessible taxis, for one thing. They’re not available in all cities, and sometimes they are hard to track down. By contrast, all black cabs in London are required to be wheelchair-accessible, so in that respect they are far ahead of us.
Air travel still has its problems too, mostly with the lack of truly accessible lavatories. But then again, at least in the US we don’t routinely deny boarding to unaccompanied wheelchair-users, which does happen a lot in Asia and Africa.
What advice would you give to travel agents when they are working with someone who has disability issues?
I’d advise them to look at the individual and their specific access needs. Everyone is different, so you have to ask a lot of questions, some of which are very personal.
And never just book an “accessible room”. Find out what features that room has, and see if they will fit your client’s access needs. For example, some people need toilet grab bars on a specific side, a bed that is a certain height or a roll-in shower instead of a tub/shower combination. You’re not going to find those features by just booking an “accessible room”.
Booking accessible travel takes some extra time and research.
What advice would you give to venues who want to become more accessible to travelers?
If you just make a barrier-free pathway—meaning no steps—to all areas of your property, it will go a long way to making things more accessible to wheelchair-users, slow walkers and even moms with strollers.
It’s just good business to make things accessible to everyone.
READ MORE: Why Overlooking The Disabled Travel Market Is A Mistake
I've seen you talk about some places that call themselves ‘accessible’, but when you got there, it was lacking.
Well, I have to preface my statement by saying that these incidents are the exceptions to the rule, and they have happened over the span of 20 years of on-site research and property inspections. So I’ve probably encountered more “access-fails” than your average traveler.
There was the time that an innkeeper told me his property was accessible, and I arrived to find two wobbly 2X4s (his makeshift ramp) leading up to the front door.
More than a few managers have described their properties as “accessible”, only to find two or three steps (with no alternative access) leading up to their front doors. They all justified their claims of accessibility by saying, “It’s only a few steps”. I also had another innkeeper claim that his three-foot high claw foot tub was perfectly accessible. To be honest, I never really understood that one.
And then there was the park ranger that directed me to an “accessible trail”—and the trailhead was located up two flights of stairs. Of course, the most common access-fail that I encounter is a bathroom that has a narrow door and no room for a wheelchair.
That’s just really unacceptable in this day and age.
READ MORE These Tips Will Keep You Safe While Traveling
Are your books based on your experiences or do you tap into others for feedback?
I certainly receive a lot of suggestions and resources from travelers and PR professionals, but I personally visit everything I cover. I feel that it’s essential when you cover accessible travel.
My goal is to describe the access so my readers can decide if a particular property or attraction will work for them. I also try to give them a feel for the place too, and you can’t do that from sitting behind a desk.
I know several people who don't travel because they say "I can't get around." What would you tell them?
The world is more accessible than you think, but you need to start out slow.
Begin with a day trip and then work up to an overnight stay within driving distance of your home. That way, if things don’t work out, you can always bail. It helps to take these little trips to sort out all the bugs before you embark on a major expedition.
I know folks with just about any disability you can name who have figured out how to make travel work for them. So you can do it too and, in the end, it’s a very empowering experience.
For more information on Candy Harrington, visit candyharrington.com.