James Ruggia | January 22, 2016 3:21 PM ET
Friday Flashback: When Walking Distance is Still Too Far
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this Jan. 30, 2015 column on the strides the travel industry had made in accommodating the disabled. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
For most of us, the challenges of travel rarely exceed the level of fidgeting annoyance, whether it’s trying to figure out a ticketing machine in another language or fumbling through a phrase book for the right expression. That long flight of stairs at the railway station with that heavy suitcase in your hands is about as bad as it gets.
If you’re like most travelers, you know the feeling of passing up those opportunities where you can get the great view by climbing an enormous flight of stairs at Notre Dame in Paris or at the Temple of the Great Jaguar in Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, for example. For those who travel with disabilities, that feeling is a constant even when they’re home watching the Travel Channel on TV.
Things have gotten much better for these travelers in the almost 40 years since the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality opened with the idea of making travel a freedom for everyone, not just the able-bodied. Travel was ahead of government on this one, as it’s now 25 years since Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) authored and sponsored The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Estimates vary, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 36 million Americans have some form of disability. That’s 12 percent of the total population, although other estimates go as high as 20 percent. The numbers are misleading because as statistics often create a comfortable separation between the reader and the reality, and there is no separation at all, because even if you’re not disabled, you are ageing and a time will come when a stairway, or a metro map with print too small will stop you in your tracks.
We have seen many examples of the travel industry reaching out to these travelers. We’ve seen customized scuba gear and skiing gear and art museums that are creatively attempting to simulate visual art in braille and poetry readings translated into sign language. Accessible Journeys, which works with travel agents, has specialized in this sort of travel for 30 years.
“When I look through my bookings I see people doing amazing things,” said Howard McCoy, president and CEO of Accessible Journeys. “People with disabilities now feel that they have the opportunity to travel. We have a paraplegic in Costa Rica, a wheel chair bound 67-year-old woman who weighs 410 pounds going to Machu Picchu, just to name a few.
“I’ve watched 30 years of development and growth,” said McCoy who points out that the ramps, the advanced equipment and the braille pads in the elevators are also helping people travel at older ages than ever before. “One of the reasons this is a lucrative niche right now is the ageing of the Baby Boom. Boomers think they can travel at just about any age. We get many travelers in their eighties.”
Even what seems like easy travel can be a challenge for many. I’ve often heard travelers say they’re putting off European travel for when they’re older and doing the rough stuff in Africa and Central America while they’re still young. Well I remember pushing my father around in a wheelchair in Europe. Those cobble-stoned historic “old towns” lose some of their charm in a wheelchair.
Stefano Sghinolfi, the CEO and owner of Rome and Italy Tourist Services specializes in getting travelers with walking and climbing disabilities not only to the sites but around them using a special chair that is essentially a hybrid of wheel chair and sedan chair.
“A lot of disabled Americans just give up on Italy because they can’t imagine getting around in the country,” said Sghinolfi. Rome and Italy assigns two assistants to each disabled traveler when they’re in a site like the Roman Forum or Pompeii, one in front and one behind. More than half of the disabled on the Census Department’s tally have walking problems, but disabilities come in multiple forms. Sghinolfi advises that agents call well ahead so his company can arrange the right equipment and people.
For a broader inventory of European accessible tourism suppliers try Pantou.org, an online directory specializing in disabled travel that includes accommodation, restaurants, transportation and other services that are accessible.
One thing all of these operators specializing in this kind of travel share is the willingness to work closely with agents and their clients to take care of the particular disability in question. What counts as a disability ranges widely from nagging arthritis and shortness of breath to paralysis and amputation. As McCoy points out many of these people are extremely able in the places where they’re not disabled.
It’s not your feet or your legs that inspire you to travel; it’s your mind and your heart. For many Americans, surmountable challenges have limited access to the travel they imagined. One very able disabled person, Stephen Hawking said it well, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist.”
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