People who want to select a non-smoking room are shown options at most booking sites. The industry needs to be just as helpful for travelers with specific needs for mobility, hearing, or visual challenges. Thankfully several online booking sites are trying to help.
Two big challenges face travelers who have sight, hearing, or mobility issues — a sizeable group that covers about one in ten people in many countries.
Some struggle to use travel websites and airport kiosks that require a mouse to click around for researching and booking travel.
What’s more, a majority — which includes seniors with age-related impairments — often feel frustrated at major travel sites for not providing ample and updated information about the rare hotels and private rentals that provide services for travelers with challenges.
As a workaround, many people looking for accessible travel book offline, turning to travel agents, like Accessible Poland Tours, that specialize in accessible tourism services for people with special needs.
In the past 18 months, many online booking sites and technologists have been aiming to make internet-based travel resources more accessible.
Major Players Make Moves
Alternative lodging, such as short-term apartment rentals or vacation homes, are often set up in properties that aren’t required to comply with the same accessibility regulations that hotels must. That makes booking this lodging tricky for travelers, who are not sure what they might get.
Last November, alternative lodging giant Airbnb acquired Accomable, a two-year-old British startup that had been cataloging accessible lodging. The site has since gone offline as Airbnb has been integrating the company’s know-how.
Last week, Expedia received final signoff that confirmed the accessibility of its website products from the National Federation of the Blind – the end of a process that started in 2015.
A bit earlier, in 2014, Expedia formally created a team of accessibility engineers who assess products to make them more usable for travelers who have sight, hearing, or mobility issues — though the company did make efforts to cater to these communities before.
The team conducts quarterly tests of products and holds training sessions for user experience designers and engineers on how to build products that consider the need for accessibility from the first lines of code. They also lead employee events, such as a May 17 event celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day at various offices.
This spring Booking.com offered for the first time a three-week accelerator program for startups aiming to improve travel. One of the participating programs was Wheel the World, which aims to make remote outdoor adventures in places like Easter Island accessible.
Help for When a Mouse Doesn’t Work
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark U.S. civil-rights law, went into effect in 1990 — well before the wide adoption of the internet. So the law did not explicitly cover how online companies need to make their sites usable by all.
That changed recently due to court decisions.
For example, in June, 2017, a federal judge ruled that a grocery chain, Winn-Dixie, had to make its site accessible to more than 7 million Americans who live with a visual disability. This ruling has prompted many companies, including travel ones, to make their sites more accessible.
Some travel sites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, function with screen-reader technology that quickly reads the text of sites out loud to customers.
To do this, companies add text labels that spell out the names for their buttons, icons, and other graphical functions when recognized by software. These tweaks enable someone unable to use a computer mouse or trackpad still use a website. They typically rely on the use of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), a set of standards.
Making Booking Sites More Usable
Finding hotels and other lodgings that are accessible to people with physical disabilities can be a challenge, as the information is often not signposted on major booking search sites and mobile apps.
Roughly one out of two hotel guests whose sight, ears, or body are impaired said they had faced obstacles during hotel stays, according to a report by the Open Doors Organization, an advocacy group.
Researching information online in advance can avoid such problems. But the online information isn’t always clear or accurate.
A couple of small online travel companies are addressing the problem. They share a goal of sparing travelers from having to call hotels directly to ask for photos or otherwise ensure the reliability of information about properties.
Accessiblego is one widely-used online travel agency.
Handiscover is another that catalogs accessible properties worldwide. It has “certified” 28,000 hotel listings, most of which Handiscover makes bookable online.
This spring, Handiscover — which is based in Sweden and has raised about $1 million — signed a deal with Amadeus that gave it access to the travel technology giant’s database of 300,000 hotels. The startup will use Amadeus’s pricing and availability information to supplement and broaden Handiscover’s listings.
Properties that Handiscover certifies come with photos to show their accessibility features, such as a roll-in shower, a toilet with grab rails, or a ramp at the entrance.
AbiliTrek is also building a hotel database for people who need accessible rooms. Documenting what’s available is a challenge. Many hotel and booking agencies do not provide accurate information about the select rooms that will meet specific physical requirements.
AbiliTrek, based in based in Bellingham, Washington, is using crowdsourcing a la TripAdvisor to build a database of reviews of properties based on how well they serve people with physical challenges. This spring the company released its beta design.
Smaller companies aiming to help the sector sometimes struggle due to a lack of marketing resources. Trekkable, which intended to rate properties for accessibility and tie that to a booking engine, has been quiet, while Special Globe, which aimed to create a community for families with children who have special needs, has gone on a long-term hiatus.
Two sites with apparently vibrant communities but little marketing muscle include WheelMap, which lists wheelchair-accessible places via Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing, and WheelchairTravel.org, which provides tips and information drawn from many travelers — especially for air and rail travel.
Other booking sites are doing more to collect relevant information on accessibility.
Accessing internet-based services isn’t just a mouse clicking issue in people’s homes. Airport kiosks are another example.
In autumn 2017, United Airlines began installing technologies to make their self-service kiosks at airports more accessible to travelers with sensory or mobility impairments. It replaced the front faces at its gates at Orlando, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut, airports with ones that have the new technology.
United will roll out additional kiosks as it renovates lobbies and retires old kiosks.
Other airlines are making similar moves to improve their kiosks.
Some airlines are also adding captioning to in-flight entertainment. Delta is adding induction loops, or technology that helps hearing aids receive audio, to its Atlanta terminal.
While not related to online booking, there is one new technology that caught our eye in its potential to help travelers.
This spring, some students won a prize at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for inventing gloves that transliterate sign language into text and speech.
The concept may take years to commercialize but could make interactions easier for the 70 million people worldwide who rely on sign language to communicate.
In the meantime, travel bloggers and stars of YouTube and Instagram are inspiring the next generation to travel regardless of ability. One is deaf traveler and marketer Calvin Harris, who has visited dozens of countries. Others include paraplegic South African traveler Bruno Hansen and frequent traveler Cory Lee, who uses a wheelchair. To be clear, they are not trying to inspire the rest of the world like what scholar Janice S. Lintz has called a “super crip.”
Some industry experts estimate that the market for spending by travelers looking for accessible options could approach $17 billion worldwide each year.
A mindset shift is the most significant factor driving a growth in travel spending. Vigorous travelers like Harris stop considering themselves to be disadvantaged relative to others. Online booking tools still have more to do to help them make that mindset easier to adopt and sustain.
Photo credit: Two students at the University of Washington, Navid Azodi (left) and Thomas Pryor (right), demonstrate their invention of a glove that transliterates sign language into speech. Tools like that can help people with disabilities travel better. There's been a wave of efforts in the past year-and-a-half to help people with mobility, hearing, and sight challenges travel more easily. University of Washington