Britain’s hotels, attractions, rail operators and airlines are still not sufficiently equipped to cater for travellers with disabilities, leading charities said this week.
With the Paralympics providing a timely opportunity to assess how well the country’s tourism facilities are serving disabled travellers, calls have been made for better staff training and clearer information about disabled access and facilities.
Guy Parckar, head of policy and campaigns at the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, said that, although significant progress had been made in this area in recent years, there was plenty of room for improvement.
“Often accessible hotels are rendered totally inaccessible because staff aren’t trained,” he said. “We recently heard of a hotel guest who was turned away because he had a guide dog – remarkable in this day and age.
“We’d also like to see hotels looking beyond the provision of level access and consider additional features like hoists to cater for a variety of disabilities.”
He added: “London’s bus network is very good, but we still hear of drivers refusing to stop for wheelchair users or ramps that don’t work. Facilities on trains are getting better, but stations have a long way to go and sometimes staff will be unable to offer assistance with simple things like handling a wheelchair.”
Barry O’Connell, 66, a campaigner for Leonard Cheshire and a wheelchair user, said: “It’s normally ridiculous little things that cause problems – from telephones that are out of reach, ramps that are too steep, or staff that are poorly trained. Most problems would be easy to spot if managers simply asked the opinion of a disabled person.
“Or why not get staff to use a manual wheelchair themselves and test out how accessible the facilities really are? They’d soon see what doesn’t work.”
Brian Seaman from the charity Tourism for All said: “We are lucky that, despite the economic situation, money is still being spent on better accessibility for the disabled, but there’s always room for more improvements.
“When it comes to flying there are a number of issues, and we still hear of passengers encountering problems due to a lack of knowledge from airline or airport staff,” he said, highlighting the case of Dr Martin Sabry, a wheelchair user who was removed from an easyJet flight earlier this year because he was unable to reach the emergency exit unaided. The businessman, a regular flier, was delayed by 12 hours as a result.
Mr Seaman called on the travel industry to offer staff more disability awareness training, to prevent such misunderstandings, but he praised a number of airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, for spearheading research into new ways of catering for disabled passengers.
He also urged hoteliers to display on their websites more information about rooms reserved for guests with disabilities, including photographs, to show whether a room billed as “accessible” is really suitable.
The establishment of a single online portal detailing information about disabled-friendly hotels, restaurants, attractions and transport services across country, would reduce the amount of research required, he said.
Marina Beaumont, a wheelchair user and author of the blog wheelchairaccesstravel.com, agreed.
“It takes many hours of research to plan an accessible trip – I can’t imagine how I would have done it in the days before internet,” she said. “It would be a great help if establishments were clear about accessibility and facilities on their websites.”
Another regular complaint is that hotels will offer only one or two large suites for disabled travellers, and then charge those guests a high rate. Mr Seaman said that common sense should prevail and hoteliers should charge a lower rate in such instances.
He added: “According to the Government, around 11 million Britons have some form of disability, eight per cent of whom are wheelchair users, so such considerations also make financial sense.”
Shahab Siddiqui, founder of the website CheapFlightsFinder.com, and a wheelchair user, suggested some simple improvements for travellers like himself, including better seating arrangements on aircraft. He cited several occasions when had been seated in a window seat, or towards the middle of the plane, making it difficult to access the lavatory. However, he singled out several airlines – including Virgin, Qantas and Air Canada – that offer a particularly good service for disabled fliers.
Five UK attractions that are leading the way
Science Museum, London – almost every part of the museum is accessible by ramp or lift; many exhibitions feature information in large print and Braille; loan wheelchairs available; good disabled parking.
Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, Co Antrim – recently overhauled following consultation with the pressure group Disability Action, the attraction now features a fully accessible clifftop path. The new Titanic attraction in Belfast has also been praised for its accessibility.
National Space Centre, Leicester – intelligently laid out; lift access to every floor; good disabled parking; large print guides; subtitled audio exhibits; touch tours can be arranged in advance.
Great North Museum, Newcastle – recommended by VisitBritain. Building is fully accessible; recent additions include large print and Braille guides; British Sign Language (BSL) tours available.
Eden Project, Cornwall – worked with the charity Sensory Trust to find innovative ways to provide access and share information. It won the Readers’ Choice prize at the 2010 Rough Guide Accessible Britain Awards.
Recommended websites for travellers with disabilities
www.actionforaccess.org – Leonard Cheshire Disability’s campaign detailed surveys about accessibility at a variety of attractions, including pubs, parks and museums
www.disabledgo.com – information on hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions
www.openbritain.net – directory of accommodation suitable for travellers with disabilities
www.accessiblecountryside.org.uk – directory of attractions, with a focus on the countryside and green spaces
www.direct.gov.uk/en/DisabledPeople/index.htm – advice on overseas holidays, air travel and public transport