The move to make travel accessible for all is beginning to gain steam, led by a group of exceptional travel agents.
Whether wheelchair bound, blind, deaf or hard of hearing, physically-challenged travelers are seeking experiences tailored to their needs.
And they’re asking the industry to respond.
Scott Rains of Ticket To Travel in San Jose, Calif., one of those at the forefront of the movement, is a travel agent – but not an agent in the usual sense.
He doesn’t book travel. Instead he consults with agencies, hotels, tour operators, and airlines to encourage them to respond to the special needs of travelers like himself.
Accessibility for everyone
Paralyzed at 17-years-old as a result of spinal cancer, Rains has been in a wheelchair as a paraplegic most of his life.
That experience, and his desire to travel, as well a doctorate in pastoral ministry and his years as a consultant on disability issues, make him well positioned to see a world of travel that could—and should—be more accessible for all travelers.
“I got into all of this because I travel a lot, and people would always ask me very specifically, ‘How can we help you get on the airplane?’” said Rains.
He believed that someone had to start answering these questions not just for the airlines, but for hotels and tour operators as well.
“My motto: As much as possible [the travel industry should] operate on the presumption that we are experts in our own experience,” Rains said. “That gives us the respect of being treated like consumers and shows that we have paid attention to how our lives are different.
“It’s mutual learning. Respect is the best general advice that I can give.”
Rains’ work has taken him to 27 countries. He traveled to South Africa in 2009 to help a local tour operator assess the accessibility of the locations for the 2010 World Cup. He’s also conducted a workshop for the World Bank in Mozambique and consulting work in Thailand.
One of his specialties is the adoption of universal design by the worldwide travel and hospitality industry.
“It goes by several other names – design for all and inclusive design, depending on what part of the world you’re in,” he said.
It’s the idea that facilities should be designed for the broadest range of people under the broadest range of conditions so that everyone is included.
Advocating for the blind
Cheryl Echevarria of Echevarria Travel in Brentwood, N.Y., has become a leader in blind travel through her role as president of the National Federation of the Blind’s Travel & Tourism Division.
The FB Travel & Tourism Division, is a division of the National Federation of the Blind, which has state affiliates and local chapters across the US. The division advocates for the blind travelers and employees in the travel industry on a local, national and international basis.
Echevarria organizes monthly division conference call meetings, a national meeting scheduled for Orlando in July, and a bi-annual fundraising trip.
Among the issues the division is dealing with is getting the cruise lines to install guide dog boxes on all the cruise ships.
“They’re like big kitty litter boxes with wood chips in them,” Echevarria said. And they’re a necessity for blind people travelling with their guide dogs.
Members are also educating airport officials about the fact that having more and more self-service flight-check-in kiosks hinder blind travelers. They want to make sure that check-in desks with live agents don’t disappear.
The deaf have different challenges, according to Peggy Prosser of D-Travel in Rochester, N.Y.
“When it comes to wheelchair users the tourism sectors can easily add ramps, and for blind people they add Braille or give audio devices at famous landmarks,” Prosser said.
But she laments the fact that there are usually no sign language interpreters available for deaf travelers. “It seems to me that because of the unavailability of services for deaf travelers, we are either forgotten or ignored.”
Prosser hopes to ensure that deaf travelers become an integral part of the travel industry by working with an NGO known as the International Deaf Development Organization (IDDO).
IDDO is advocating for deaf rights in developing countries by encouraging tourism that will employ deaf people as tour guides and consultants to tour companies as they create itineraries for deaf people.
The organization also plans to build hotels that would be run by deaf people, as would auxiliary services like spas, restaurants and salons.
Among the destinations on which it will initially focus its tourism development efforts are the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Kenya, where Prosser knows many among the deaf community.