Features.

Accessible travel: all you need to know

Accessible tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel. From step-free access to bespoke audio navigation apps, Click. investigates what businesses need to know in order to cater for this underserved market

by Lottie Gross, Click. Travel Writer,

Topic: Guest experience

Click. Takeaway

  • It’s estimated that by 2030, 24% of the US population will be disabled
  • In 2015, the Open Doors Organisation estimated that adults with disabilities spend around $17.3bn annually
  • Interior design consideration and staff education is essential. Simple things like a plant pot in front of the elevator call button or hand-held shower heads placed up high on the wall by housekeeping staff can significantly impact the accessibility of a hotel stay
  • Non-profit organisation Wayfindr has created the world’s first internationally-approved standard for accessible audio navigation
  • The first UN report on disability in 2011 stated that over a billion people in the world live with some form of disability
  • Around 21 million disabled adults from the US travelled for either business or leisure in 2005, according to a 2015 report

The numbers relating to disability are staggering. It’s estimated that by 2030, 24% of the US population will be disabled. That’s almost 84 million people, and it’s highly likely a large portion of them will travel too.

The first UN report on disability in 2011 stated that over a billion people in the world live with some form of disability, and according to a 2015 report, around 21 million disabled adults from the US travelled for either business or leisure in 2005.

Serving this growing market presents challenges for hoteliers, but there’s also potential to provide a great service for those with disabilities: in 2015, the Open Doors Organisation estimated that adults with disabilities spend around $17.3bn annually.

What are the main issues?

Mobility challenges are the most common issue for disabled travellers, whether they are in a wheelchair, using canes or crutches, or experiencing difficulty climbing stairs.

Step-free access is undoubtedly becoming more common across the world, and Japan is leading the way, says Claire Allison from Inside Asia Tours, who sits on the company’s accessibility committee and helped put together their wheelchair-accessible Golden Route tour, which includes stays at fully-accessible hotels.

Hotels often stop short at the bathroom or bedroom, but that’s not enough to make an accessible vacation – John Sage, Accessible Travel Solutions

“This only looks set to continue in the lead up to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. In recent years, there’s been a real push towards providing barrier-free facilities, and these days, disabled access on public transport is slick and efficient and many of the top sights such as Meiji Shrine and Senso-ji have excellent accessibility with lifts and elevators,” she says.

In some countries, there are specific regulations to adhere to, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which stipulates that all public buildings and some private (those built after 1993) should be wheelchair accessible.

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‘There is great potential for hoteliers in the accessibility market’. Photo:Waranont Wichittranont

But where regulations don’t necessarily exist, John Sage from Accessible Travel Solutions says providing access throughout the entire property is key to attracting disabled travellers.

“Often in Europe and throughout the Caribbean where there may be older buildings, the main entrance might not be accessible – it might have steps, for example – and so there will be some kind of side or back entrance that is accessible. You need a clearly placed sign pointing out where that is, and if I show up in my wheelchair I want to be able to go in through that entrance without having to get somebody inside to open the door for me,” Sage says.

Looking beyond the obvious

Interior design consideration and staff education is also essential. Simple things like a plant pot in front of the elevator call button or hand-held shower heads placed up high on the wall by housekeeping staff can significantly impact the accessibility of a hotel stay.

All areas, including dining and reception, should be accessible too. Sage adds: “Hotels often stop short at the bathroom or bedroom, but that’s not enough to make an accessible vacation. All these things make it easier on people, and the easier it is, the more likely they are to travel.”

Access goes beyond the physical, though, explains travel writer and hearing access consultant Janice Schacter Lintz: “All too often, hotels consider physical access and forget hearing access.” According to the World Federation of the Deaf, 70 million people around the globe have hearing impairments and use sign language.

“Hotels should add induction loops to their conference rooms and service desks,” says Schacter Lintz. “People with hearing loss need to hear when they travel for work and events,” she adds.

Access for those with visual impairment is just as important. The World Health Organization says there are more than 285 million visually-impaired and blind people in the world – and less perceptible conditions such as autism and down syndrome should also be considered.

Accessible tech

Advances in modern technology are certainly making access easier to achieve. Portable in-room devices, such as smartphones or tablets, are becoming increasingly common and provide a way for disabled guests to get in touch with hotel staff without having to move across the room to a landline or help button.

For the visually impaired, venues can now take tech development into their own hands. Non-profit organisation Wayfindr has created the world’s first internationally-approved standard for accessible audio navigation. Their Open Standard provides guidelines for transport hubs, retail spaces, hotel resorts or tourist attractions to create their own digital wayfinding service, and its made available an open source mobile application that can be tailored for specific built environments.

The magic ingredient in all of our successful holidays has been the attitude of staff – Hayley Goleniowska, Downs Side Up

Hotels should think beyond physical access, too, says Hayley Goleniowska who blogs at Downs Side Up and has a young daughter with down syndrome. “The magic ingredient in all of our successful holidays has been the attitude of staff, such as smiling and making a fuss of all siblings equally and not turning our child with additional needs away from kids club.”

A study by Tourism Research Australia in 2017 revealed that price-points need to be accessible for all, too. In their research on accessible tourism in Victoria and Queensland, respondents’ top priority for improving travel was deals and offers for those travelling with a carer.

Sage says it’s important to think outside the hotel experience too. She explains: “You can make a hotel fully accessible, but it still might not be enough, because for someone to leave the comfort of their accessible home they need all parts of the trip to be accessible. This includes airport transfers and having mobility equipment to rent. And they also need a reason to leave. They need some great accessible experiences, activities and guided tours.”

Want more tips? Find out the essentials for hiring great staff in hospitality

Lottie Gross is a freelance travel writer and journalist

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