Gone on a trip lately? I did—last week. That’s when I realized that the travel industry is in what you might call the mullet stage of their accessibility makeover. That’s right—stuck in the 80s. Transportation in general—airlines, buses, subway systems, ride shares and railways—seem to need the most work. On the positive side, large attractions and destinations that serve families, as well as hotels that cater to big businesses, seem to be the pacesetters. How have they gotten ahead while other venues lag so far behind? Mostly by making simple changes.
Equipping staff with a new set of skills, for example, autism training, is playing a big role. Technology upgrades are also important. Many conference and performance centers are now making it standard for meeting rooms to be equipped with a screen for captions and wired with a hearing loop. This helps people who use hearing aids to listen to lectures and performances with greater clarity.
Most makeovers start with an aha-moment. I had mine on last week’s trip to Chicago. I realized that because I write about disability in the workplace fo a living, accessibility fixes seem obvious to me. But for the average person working in the travel industry? This is all new territory.
Here’s something that may be an aha moment for business owners: People with disabilities are the largest minority in the U.S. The accessible travel market is growing by 22% yearly and Open Doors, a Chicago non-profit estimates that in a two-year span (2014-2016), people with disabilities took 73 million trips for business and pleasure. That number doesn’t even include Baby Boomer travelers, who are reluctantly joining our ranks as they age.
But an accessibility makeover isn’t something that just happens as part of routine updates to your business. (It’s also likely to be a failure if accessibility is everyone’s job, because then no one feels accountable for getting the job done). That explains why the number one question business owners ask me about accessibility is Where do we start?
Here’s what people with disabilities have to say. Start by talking with travelers who have disabilities who travel to find out exactly what common obstacles they face. Set goals that are measured and make people responsible for them. This is basic business strategy 101, but for some reason, when it comes to serving customers with disabilities, progress has been impossibly slow. Accessibility is the law. I write that with zero snark intended. As a person with a disability, it baffles me that a law passed nearly 30 years ago in this country—the Americans with Disabilities Act— is still considered kind-sorta-maybe-sometimes enforceable.
These are ideas from experts in both the disability and travel industries:
- If you work in the travel industry, take pride in being a resource. Find out how other hotels are recreating their meeting spaces or how popular destinations are training their staff in the basics of helping families with an autistic child of any age (Jet Blue, Sandals Resorts, and Universal Studios Theme Parks are just a few examples). Help employees to be lifelong learners, that way no matter how long they may have worked for you, they are prepared (and hopefully, excited) about change. Offer basic etiquette suggestions for helping people with apparent disabilities and invisible disabilities. You will be surprised at how quickly you start to see opportunities to be more accessible.
- Whether you design rooms or children’s programming in the travel industry, test before you suggest. Usability testing by people with lived experience is the difference between an authentic solution and one that seems bolted on. If you are a travel provider, there are a variety of certifications available for tagents who want to specialize in disability-friendly vacations. But don’t get bamboozled by dozens of online offers to be certified: A travel provider who is an Accredited Disability Agent, an Autism-Friendly Agent and an Accessible Travel Specialist may not be any more qualified to help than someone who has three decades of experience planning tours for people with mobility issues. Both can be helpful resources.
- Do the right thing. Go beyond compliance. If part of your job is to help someone to truly enjoy traveling, stop thinking about budgets and numbers for a minute. Learn more about the lives of people with different abilities. Often, it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. Here’s an example that always makes me smile: People who use wheelchairs and are traveling in the U.K. can literally get the keys to the (accessible) kingdom thanks to the RADAR (Royal Association for Disability Rights). For about $10, the organization will mail you a Royal blue key which gives you independent access to over 9,000 accessible toilets in the U.K.
- Don’t expect that you will ever be completely finished making your business accessible—particularly if it has anything to do with technology. But don’t think you have to go it alone either. Again, ask the experts—people with disabilities who travel. Instead of working around them, it’s much more satisfying for everyone to work together. There are also services that can offer advice on staying up to date on web accessibility, such as peatworks.org and traveltripper.com
- Finally, some advice for baggage handlers who work with wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Stop—just stop and think before you act. You are breaking wheelchairs at a ridiculously unacceptable rate. Thousands of wheelchairs and scooters are damaged every year. It’s hard to say what’s worse, say disabled travelers, the expense of repairing a wheelchair or the inconvenience of not having it for weeks, particularly on a vacation. To make airlines more accountable for the damage, they are now required to file a monthly damage report, thanks to the advocacy of Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).
On this recent trip, I watched as a frustrated airline baggage handler treated a wheelchair like a vehicle ready for the Jaws of Life. Later at my hotel, I saw how the concierge struggled to offer directions to a person in a wheelchair. He was trying to make himself heard over a wall of marble (otherwise known as a desk). (It was all I could do not to yell, Step out from behind the desk. On my return trip, the attendant at the long-term parking lot I used look surprised when I asked for help moving my car out. To me, the spot looked just right for a pair of adult tricycles—and because part of my learning disability includes having zero ability to judge where things are in space, I needed help.
In all three cases, slowing down and looking for an alternative would have been the perfect accommodation.
When I was pregnant, I used to comment to my partner that I was seeing pregnant women everywhere. Who knew so many women were pregnant at the same time! He kindly explained that maybe pregnancy was on my mind, so I was noticing it more. It’s similar with accessibility. Now that I know about my learning disabilities and write about disabilities in the workplace, I see opportunities for accessible tweaks everywhere. You will, too.