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Travel, whether it’s a day trip or that once in a lifetime dream vacation, brings with it excitement and adventure, but for anyone living with mobility, hearing or vision impairments, the mere notion of traveling can also deliver a hefty dose of fear and anxiety.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability. As this number rises, (partly due to the aging baby boomer population) the call for accessible, barrier-free travel has intensified, and more of us are experiencing how these challenges affect ourselves or those we love.

Barriers to Accessible Travel

 Accessible travel, as identified by UNWTO (World Tourism Organization), refers to “the adaption of environments and of tourism products and services so as to enable access, use and enjoyment by all users, enabling people with mobility, vision, or hearing impairments to function independently and with equity and dignity.”

Some barriers to travel for a disabled person seem obvious, some less so. For someone with mobility issues, navigating cobblestone streets, or arriving at a hotel room to find doorways that are too narrow for a wheelchair can all but ruin a vacation. The blind and visually impaired often contend with tourist sites that don’t offer braille signage and/or descriptive audio tours. People with hearing impairments may find it difficult to hear announcements at a bus and train station, airport, or even hearing a tour guide.

Mary Pritchard is an avid traveler and a keen theater-goer. Over the course of 40 years wearing hearing aids, she can cite countless examples where her travel and entertainment experiences were hindered, at times even blocked, because she was unable to hear.

“The big issue for me is theatre, both movie and live theatre,” Pritchard says. “Although they provide earplugs so you pick up the audio directly to your ears, as my hearing worsened, they became useless. I went once a year to the Shaw Festival in Niagara but stopped going because there was no point in paying the price for the ticket when I couldn’t hear the show. I also did a bus tour and a riverboat cruise while in Italy. Having to listen to people on microphones can be impossible.”

David Lyons-Black, Accessible Travel Specialist at Flight Centre Independent, has visited 24 countries and claims to have had great vacations, but also his share of not so great experiences along the way. Despite doing his usual pre-trip homework for a recent holiday, Lyons-Black arrived at his hotel to find the staff seemingly oblivious to the challenges a person in a wheelchair might encounter. “Every day I came back to my room to find the TV remote had been placed on top of the TV. I can’t reach that high,” Lyons-Black says. “I informed the staff that this was an issue for me, but it continued to happen. I also asked that they take the desk chair out of the room, which they did, but again at the end of the day I’d returned to find the chair would be back in front of that desk.”

June Kozlow, a senior in her eighties, admits her hearing has deteriorated to the point that she finds a simple bus trip to visit her daughter not only frustrating, but on one occasion, humiliating. Kozlow says of that experience, “I asked the driver to let me know when we’d arrived at my destination. It was too late when I realized he had called out my stop, but I hadn’t heard him. With the bus full of people plugged into their devices, I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. It was really upsetting.”

Open Doors Organization (ODO), estimates that disabled travelers spend over $17 billion annually on travel in the United States. Since people with disabilities are less likely to travel alone, their actual contribution tops $35 billion or more. It only makes good and ethical sense for the tourism industry to ensure their facilities are accessible and that people like Lyons-Black, Pritchard and Kozlow, along with millions of disabled travelers, experience a barrier-free vacation.

And by all accounts, the industry seems to be heeding the call. More ramps and accessible washroom facilities, advanced hearing devices, descriptive audio tours, and assistive technology are now making it easier for all tourists, no matter their limitations, to have a thrilling vacation experience.

Travel for the Hearing Impaired

Some hotels provide hearing accessible technology, such as fire alerts, room doorbells and shake awake alarms. As well, some guided tours have FM systems available.

One such innovation designed to better address the needs of hearing-impaired travelers is Navilution®, a GPS-triggered technology. Tour bus, train and boat companies can now install a control box in their vehicles which transmits commentary to their visitors wearing either headphones or earbuds. The GPS technology allows operators to deliver the right story at the right time and will even sense when the vehicle is stopped in traffic, giving the driver the opportunity to play additional stories.

Travel for the Visually Impaired

As with every disabled traveler, blind and visually impaired travelers will bring along the devices and technologies they use in their everyday life—screen-reader software, smartphone apps, Microsoft Soundscape, Bose sunglasses, GPS app—but now more tour operators are providing audio guides specifically designed for the blind which include directions from site to site and directions within the room e.g. “Follow the wall on your right to the door. Be careful; if the weather is nice, the door may be open,” or “Standing with your back to the door, you are facing a large fireplace.”

Museums and galleries are also working to find ways to better involve and include their visually impaired visitors. OCAD University graduate students from inclusive design graduate program are helping the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) bring art to life for people in the blind and low vision community by re-imagining AGO artwork and creating a tactile experience with three-dimensional, multi-sensory projects.

Melissa Smith, AGO Gallery Guide and Adult Education Coordinator says, “We work to create exhibits that people with visual impairments can touch, like bronze statues.”

Infrared and GPS solutions, which trigger audio as the visitor approaches, also deliver “visual sound” to bring sites and exhibits to life through storytelling and vivid description.

In the same vein, Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England provides a “touch and feel” model of the cathedral along with a raised floor map to indicate where the various pillars and altar are positioned. They also have a model house to offer visitors a sense of scale.

Overcoming Mobility Issues

Airports, bus and train stations can be a huge stress-inducer for any traveler with accessibility issues. The myriad of problems and possibilities for mishaps are enormous. To better serve people with mobility issues, many train companies have made a concerted effort to design their platforms and compartments with accessibility in mind. From platform ramps that bridge the gap at their stations, to mechanical lifts that hoist a wheelchair into or out, trains provide one of the most accessible ways to travel.

“Traveling with disabilities presents many challenges, including the ability to hear announcements, including those that would be considered emergency or critical,” says Maile Keone, President of Listen Technologies, a company dedicated to assistive listening systems. “The challenges extend to things as simple as finding someone who has empathy for those traveling and is willing to go the extra mile to help. I’ve had this happen while traveling with my mom, who moves slowly and doesn’t always hear the announcements.”

Assistive Technology Moves Travelers

Assistive technology—an umbrella term for assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices or software for people with disabilities—is also playing a significant role in making travel accessible for everyone. Whether it’s a smartphone-controlled wheelchair outfitted with rubber tracks for climbing stairs, smart walking sticks, teleloops for assistive listening or enhanced eye-tracking technology, travel is moving in the right direction toward barrier-free travel.

Language can be another barrier to accessibility in a global industry where international tourist arrivals in destinations around the world total 1,326 million, a figure that is growing every year. Technology that enables multilingual options on passenger controls brings the stories of their destination to life for visitors of varied cultures and backgrounds.

For a grandmother who speaks Chinese traveling with her English-speaking grandchildren, this can be a life-altering experience. “This woman was in tears,” says Ange Berlin, Vice President, Creative for AudioConexus, a tour technology company now part of the Listen Technologies group. “After experiencing our audio tour on the hop-on hop-off bus, she enjoyed the same experience as her grandchildren for the first time, laughing at the same things and wondering together at others. It was very moving for us, knowing we’d made a difference in their lives.”

Assisted Travel Starts at Home

According to Travel Weekly 80% of all travelers research, then book their vacations online. For a special needs traveler, online booking can be the easiest way to arrange a trip. Fortunately, the tourism industry is responding to the online booking trend by making their websites easier to navigate. Airbnb has updated its peer-to-peer property rental platform to include 21 new accessibility filters, and Google has added “wheelchair accessible” routes to transit navigation on Google Maps.

 Advice for Travelers with Accessibility Needs

When asked what advice he offers his clients before they embark on any travel, Lyons-Black says, “There’s a ton of information and tips out there for travelers with disabilities. Do your research and plan ahead, but my number one piece of advice is, don’t be afraid. Others with help you. All you have to do is ask.”

By way of example, Lyons-Black recalls a visit to the Melbourne Opera House in Melbourne, Australia. Upon arriving at the theatre, he was faced with 33 stairs he had no way of navigating. No stranger to adversity nor to asking for assistance, Lyons-Black inquired if the venue had an alternate route to get in so he could join the tour visiting the site.

“We were taken through the kitchen, then led to a service elevator and came out a few levels below. As we traveled through the belly of the Opera House, performers from Madame Butterfly, that evening’s performance, were high-fiving us.” Lyons-Black laughs. “I felt like I had a behind-the-curtain peek, and it really made me feel like I was part of the production. That would never have happened if I hadn’t asked.”

Partners in Accessible Travel

Lyons-Black also has advice for the tourism industry when it comes to making a disabled person’s travel experience all that it can be.

“Listen, really listen,” he says. “Disabled people know what they want to get out of an adventure, and, together with an agent, they can come up with an itinerary that fulfills their travel goals. An agent should never assume what their client’s limitation might be. The last thing a client wants to hear is, no way can you do that. I provide my clients with a two-and-a-half-page document to fill out, then set aside an hour to get to know them. That way I learn the nature of their disability and can better advise them what they need to consider and what to expect along their journey.”

Accessible tourism must be a collaborative effort between stakeholders, governments, tour operators and their customers—persons with disabilities. With more players working to improve the quality of travel for people with disabilities, the tourism industry is headed in the right direction to creating barrier-free access.

“I believe we become better humans through travel,” says Keone. “We learn to understand the diverse nature of the world, that it goes well beyond our small part of it. For those with accessibility issues, being able to travel and be accommodated inspires them to trust they can venture outside their comfort zone and be taken care of and their needs understood.”

Lyons-Black agrees. “We’ll get there,” he says. “We all just have to work together.”

What’s Your Next Story? Want to learn more about how to make your tour more accessible? Talk to Us.