Several studies have indicated that the accessible travel market is poised to grow dramatically over the next few years. These analyses have been conducted in Europe and the Americas, and the results are all telling the same story: growth in the billions of dollars. Since over 600 million people worldwide require a level of physical accessibility assistance (due to a permanent, temporary or situational disability), it is no wonder that so many hoteliers, tour operators, OTA's and destinations have included accessible travel as a vital part of their strategic plans. But are we including the right components, and will we satisfy the needs and wants of these travelers?
Of course, we have considered meeting the requirements mandated by the state and federal authorities, but if we are trying to improve, then undoubtedly there are better questions to be asking: Are we doing all we can to excel and delight these prospective travelers? Are we assisting them throughout the marketing and booking process? Are we ensuring that the people factor has been addressed at our respective touchpoints? What are some of the critical factors to consider for these areas?
As the mother of someone with multiple disabilities and as the Founder and CEO of Exploryst (a disability travel planning site), I have traveled often and encountered many issues. Here are a few reminders for hoteliers that might help you as you plan to do more to support people with a variety of physical disabilities in this segment:
-The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is not fully comprehensive in the US. Title III of the ADA is the bare minimum for hotels and other public accommodations, which include private entities that are open to the public or that provide goods or services to the public (restaurants, experiences, rentable transportation, activities and more).
-Invite people with a variety of disabilities (audio, visual, mobility, sensory) to the table when you are designing spaces and experiences where you want us to feel welcome.
-Ask questions regarding any assistance the traveler might require beyond standard protocol.
-Don't gawk, but don't ignore either - this can be an educational opportunity.
-Acknowledge and engage with people with disabilities, not a companion, aide or interpreter. We know that the world isn't built for us, but by acknowledging us and the situation, our shared humanity goes a long way.
-Many of the physically accessible failures in hotels and lodging establishments happen in the bathroom, closets, beds and entry doors.
-Having roll-in showers where it is impossible to reach the shower controls from the shower bench, out-of-reach towel rods and sinks with no space for a wheelchair are frequent problems. The mirrors may also be hung too high for anyone to see themselves. Soaps may also be out of reach.
-Doors may be too heavy to be opened alone while entering a space. In the US, door hardware must be able to be operated with a closed fist and not require more than five pounds of force to use.
-Beds can be too high or unable to be adjusted by the staff. This could be needed because of the necessary use of a Hoyer lift.
-Manager suggestion: move a chair around the room and determine what you could do while seated.
One of the best things you can do is have an open discussion with your team. Here are some great questions to discuss with your staff:
1. Where in our environment might someone with diverse bodily needs bump up against a barrier preventing them from fully accessing the space?
2. What assumptions are we making that we should not make? (Tip: Do not assume anyone's ability status related to carrying luggage, walking long distances, taking the stairs, etc.)
3. Does our current signage offer options to make the traveler's trip more accessible and comfortable?
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is be patient with people. Please assume that the travelers are doing their best. Remember that everyone has a right to be in public places. Do not be unkind. Do not shame others for their needs.
Finally, although often neglected, providing training to staff on disability awareness and how to support travelers with disabilities is paramount. Offer general disability awareness training to all staff and more detailed accessibility training to customer-facing staff. Enhance this training with guidance, resources and ongoing support. Accessibility training should cover a wide range of topics, including an overview of the types of disabilities, disability etiquette and terminology, education on appropriate and inappropriate terms, general awareness of common accessibility barriers and features, tips for assisting customers with disabilities and specific knowledge of onsite accessibility features and how to use them. All staff training should also account for unconscious bias, including stereotypes and assumptions, and actively counter it.
The market for accessible travel is indeed exploding; however, benefiting commercially from the boom will likely depend on how well we educate, prepare and execute to care for these travelers' needs.
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