Travellers with disabilities are a group long overdue for the attention they deserve from the travel and tourism industry. Smart travel providers are making the commitment to improving accessibility, but we still have room to grow.
After all, the number of travellers with disabilities is growing – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 27 per cent of US adults have a disability – and they’re spending significant amounts of money on travel. Knowing the importance of doing better to meet their diverse needs leads to our next question: what comes next?
Who are travellers with disabilities?
Approximately 61 million adult Americans have a disability. Of those, nearly 13 per cent have cognitive challenges, which includes difficulty concentrating, remembering things, and making decisions. More than 12 per cent experience mobility challenges such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Another six per cent report hearing impairments, and almost five per cent have vision impairments. People with disabilities are also more likely to have obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Given that this list captures only a portion of disabilities, and that many individuals may have more than one, this catch-all term includes a wide range of challenges and impairments. Additionally, within each of those categories, severity can range from minimal to moderate, and the accommodations an individual needs because of their disability can, therefore, vary as well.
Baby boomers, because of their age, may live with impairments at higher rates than younger demographics, but they also have some of the highest purchasing power among the generations. The Federal Reserve estimates that baby boomers held 51 per cent of the US’s household wealth, approximately $70 trillion, in 2022. And on top of that, baby boomers remain active and desirous of spending some of their expendable income on travel.
Regardless of generation, it’s estimated that people with disabilities worldwide spend $95 billion on travel each year. The travel providers who will benefit most from this spend are the ones who address needs and interests that historically have been ignored. This goes beyond physical accommodations – wheelchair ramps and braille signage – and should also integrate assistance services from fully trained staff.
What challenges do travellers with disabilities face?
People with disabilities often report that the best way to counteract the challenges of travel is with hypervigilance while planning a trip. Additional phone calls go out to hotels and airlines, making sure the accommodations they need are available, email strings build as they confirm and re-confirm interpreter availability, in-room refrigeration for medication, and so on. To best anticipate their needs, it helps to know what some of the biggest challenges are among travellers with disabilities.
1. Travel insurance
Travel insurance is part of that planning process, and one of the most common questions in travel insurance is whether pre-existing conditions are covered. This becomes even more of a hot topic for travellers with disabilities.
Although the definition of a pre-existing condition varies by plan, it generally includes an illness, disease or other condition that existed before the plan began. A disability may or may not be considered pre-existing depending on what it is and how it is being addressed.
The CDC estimates that 27 per cent of US adults have a disability – and they’re spending significant amounts of money on travel
Fortunately, some plans include a waiver of pre-existing conditions. Travellers must be sure to purchase travel insurance soon after making their first trip payments so that they are still eligible for the waiver, and review the plan and talk to the travel insurance provider if there are any questions about whether their disability could be covered by the waiver.
We can’t pass all the responsibility on to the traveller, though. Travel insurance providers must clarify the limitations of coverage for pre-existing conditions with consumer-friendly language, and help travellers find the best coverage for their needs before they book travel arrangements. Adaptive websites with intuitive purchase tools, licensed sales agents on-call for travellers who need a personal touch, and a commitment to overall customer excellence is just the beginning.
Transport is traditionally one of the biggest challenges for travellers with disabilities. We’ve all heard stories about broken wheelchairs checked by airlines or accessible public toilets at a bus terminal being closed for maintenance. Accommodating mobility issues is just one piece of the puzzle, however.
- An airline-supplied wheelchair that is designed to fit in the aisle for boarding may be uncomfortable and insufficiently support the traveller. Airline employees must also be trained in transferring travellers from the wheelchair to their seat in a way that is both respectful and helps the individual to avoid physical pain. Many aircraft, particularly narrow-body aeroplanes, do not have wheelchair-accessible lavatories. This is especially true if the traveller requires assistance in the lavatory where there simply isn’t enough space for more than one person
- Complex and expansive layouts of airport terminals can present a particular challenge to travellers with mobility or visual impairments
- Transport hubs are often busy and loud places. For travellers with sensory sensitivities, this can be extremely stressful and, in more severe circumstances, prevent them from travelling
- For travellers with visual and hearing impairments, announcements about gate and time changes may be difficult to keep track of
- Wheelchairs and guide dog harnesses often set off metal detectors at security checkpoints, resulting in pat-downs and delays. Individuals with autism often find this process especially difficult due to unfamiliar noises, potentially needing to be touched by security officers, and staff not understanding the needs of the individual.
Much like transport, lodging is cited as a major challenge. Again, it’s a matter of providing proper physical accommodation and staff training.
- Accessible rooms are an obvious place to focus. Less frequently, however, hotel amenities – pools, restaurants, conference rooms – are designed with individuals with disabilities in mind
- Some lodging may be overstimulating for those with sensory challenges. This is particularly true of themed resorts where bright, flashy decor is part of the experience
- For travellers with mobility devices, small hotel rooms designed to maximise building occupancy may be too cramped for easy and safe navigation. For those with visual impairments, close quarters can also result in tripping hazards
- Staff may be inconsistently trained. They may not know that accessibility accommodations can (and should) be provided. They may not know how to best work with the traveller, which is especially common when the traveller has a cognitive disability or autism, where behaviours are not always recognised as the result of an impairment.
Websites should be clear about what ‘accessible’ means. Simply saying a hotel is wheelchair-friendly may not be enough
How to exceed customer expectations
People with disabilities must often put forth extra effort when planning travel. We can do our part to not only create the accessible and accommodating environments they need during their trip, but also to make planning and booking travel arrangements easier.
Websites should be clear about what ‘accessible’ means. Simply saying a hotel is wheelchair-friendly may not be enough. Clearly explain what that means. Are no-threshold showers available? Does the hotel bar have lower seating? Make it easy to reserve extra accommodations, such as requesting a sign language translator on a cruise or assistance getting through airport security.
Staff need to be thoroughly and consistently educated on working with travellers with disabilities so they can provide accommodations in a way that helps the traveller maintain their dignity and enjoy their trip. Employees must also be alert to disabilities that are visible as well as those that aren’t, such as sensory disorders.
Meeting the needs of all travellers, including those with disabilities, is a matter of good ethics and good business. To ignore this market does a disservice to all.