Accessible travel for clients with disabilities is a challenging brief, but one that agents need to be prepared to tackle, says Denise Dube
Almost 57 million Americans have a special need, whether it’s a physical disability, a mental limitation or a dietary restriction, according to the United States Census Bureau. Travel agents who work primarily with clients such as these believe they prize the experience of travel above all — money is often a secondary concern. Customers are willing to pay more if the agent is aware of accessibility laws within each country and knows the airport and airline’s access abilities. The appropriate van or vehicle must be waiting at the airport and the hotel must be accessible.
Open Door Organization (ODO), a non-profit based in Chicago, is dedicated to “creating a society in which all persons with disabilities have the same consumer opportunities.” Its 2015 market study — the third nationwide report by the group — showed that adults with disabilities spend $17.3bn on travel annually. The organization has been studying and teaching in the field of accessiblility since 2000, and won an ASTA Access to Freedom Award in 2003. Founder Eric Lipp trains suppliers to better serve people with disabilities. That includes teaching airlines how to implement the Air Carrier Access Act.The association’s 2015 report looks at travel patterns, frequency of travel and spending. It highlights that 72% of clients have had a problem with an airline and 65% with an airport.
The good news, however, is that the numbers are lower than they were in 2005, when they were 84% and 82%, respectively. Even better, obstacles at restaurants, and physical and communication barriers aredecreasing, too. Debra Kerper of Easy Access Travel and Cruise Planners is a bi-lateral amputee and specializes in disabled and mature travelers’ needs. She knows that people with special requirements will pay for a luxury trip that fulfills every necessity — such as a large elevator for wheelchair-bound clients. Recently, she advertised an upcoming group trip on Facebook. A few hours later 43 people had signed on, without asking for the price. According to Kerper and other experts, that’s a fairly common experience. Author of Barrier Free Travels, magazine editor and accessible travel expert Candy Harrington, and travel specialist Anne Litt, owner of Undiscovered Britain and Ireland, share a wealth of accessible information between them. “All the Baby Boomers are hitting 70,” Litt says. “They want to travel and have the money.”
Litt and Harrington caution against making assumptions about clients, as not all disabilities are obvious. Some people may have had a hip replacement or a heart attack. “Not everyone that’s disabled is in a wheelchair,” Litt 1says. “A lot of people are disabled and you’d never know.” As a result, open communication is vital in order to determine if the provider is going to be a good fit for them. “You want to find out what your client’s specific needs are,” says Harrington. “It’s OK to ask. A good general rule of thumb is if you’re uncomfortable asking the questions, they’re going to be uncomfortable answering them.” She suggests simply asking what their needs are in general, or what their specific room or bathroom requirements may be. “If they start talking about bathroom habits, you’re going to have to be OK with that. It does become routine after
In an ideal world, the experts say, every large agency would have a dedicated accessible travel agent. There are many details for agents to take into account. The height of a hotel bed might not be important to the spry and ablebodied, but could be impossible for someone with a prosthetic leg or a hip replacement. Sometimes agency services are required for the entire trip, so agents are required to consider and check on every single element. On cruises — most accessible experts recommend Royal Caribbean, Celebrity or Azamara — roll-in showers are a must. A Hoyer lift near the pool transports those in wheelchairs into and out of the water. Most importantly, the agent must make sure these accommodations are available before the guests arrive onboard. It’s fair to say that some agents aren’t interested in the necessary extra work, or the prospect of a 2am phone call saying that an airplane was delayed and an important connection missed. Neville, Kerper and Litt often take referrals from agencies that aren’t equipped to accommodate people with disabilities, as the trip starts from the moment the traveler leaves home. The group or individual is given the agent’s cell number and calls if any of the plans fall through. Most times it doesn’t, but every once in while there’s a glitch. With the agent’s expert accessible knowledge, the problems are often fixable.
A single platform of information
The European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) has created the Pantou directory, an extensive accessible supplier database. According to ENAT’s managing director and founder Ivor Ambrose, online resource Pantou (pantou.org) allows agents to get everyone everywhere within the European Union, no matter what the client’s needs may be. Pantou (meaning ‘everywhere’ in Greek) is managed by non-profit ENAT, whose aim is “to be ‘frontrunners’ in the study, promotion and practice of accessible tourism.” The website also states, “By leveraging the knowledge and experience of the network, our members are improving the accessibility of tourist information, transport, infrastructure, design and service for visitors with all kinds of access needs.” Ambrose says, “We started it [Pantou] in 2014 to gather data about the number of accessible suppliers in Europe, using a fairly strict set of selection criteria to cover most types of access requirements/disabilities. “We try to cover the whole ‘tourism value chain,’ meaning not just accommodation, but also transport, tour operators, equipment, suppliers and so on.” Pantou, which is also supported by the European Commission, promotes any services that have made their offering more accessible. Before the Pantou directory became available, agents had to search through countless organizations and businesses to find appropriate suppliers to which to match their clients. Pantou’s efforts have created a single platform for all accessible needs, commendably working toward inclusion, whether in the air, on a cruise, in a restaurant or anywhere else.
One family’s experience
Active travelers Ann and David Morins have a daughter, Allison, who, at 32 years old, is completely dependent on her parents. They sometimes use Suzanne Neville, an agent from Global Link Travel, in Bennington, VT for flights and other travel needs. But over the years, Ann took classes and began doing the footwork for organizing travel herself. She and David are now well-versed in the access laws that govern air, land and sea, and they create and book their family vacations themselves. They prefer individual rather than group tours, and have visited England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Maui, Kauai, New Zealand, Australia and beyond. They’ve journeyed in a van through New England, across the United States and around Canada. After more than three decades, Ann has it all down to a science. Allison requires diapers, a commodity that Ann orders through a mid-western company. There are 24 in each box, which only last three days. Some of their forays have lasted a month or more, so Ann will either mail cases to the first stop or check them at the airline. She packs a bath chair because even in accessible rooms, there isn’t always a seat for her daughter. And because Allison has special dietary requirements, they also pack a 7in electric fry pan (with converter and adapter), along with a blender and special food, as well as medicines and other emergency gear. No matter the difficulty presented while negotiating accessibility, most problems can be surmounted through a bit of foresight and consideration.