The number of people with disabilities is increasing and travel advisors need to understand this demographic. If they don’t, not only will they lose business to specialist agencies, they may also risk prosecution.
With one in four American adults classified as having a disability, travel advisors need to better understand these travelers. Being able to complete their bookings is not just a business necessity, it’s a legal requirement under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which demands equal treatment for travelers with disabilities.
According to consultant and trainer Craig Kennedy of Disability Life Coaching, most travel advisors “have no idea what issues are faced or what the special needs of any disabled traveler are unless they have actually worked with a customer with a disability.”
While travel advisors are learning more about this, Kennedy recommends using a specialist agent in many cases.
“It is so important to have accurate information when traveling with a disability and the needs of each traveler with a disability are going to be very different, even within the same disability category,” he said.
The challenge for travel advisors is two-fold: understanding the needs of the traveler, on the one hand, and knowing what facilities are available in the travel market.
Andrew J. Garnett, president and CEO of Special Needs Group, a mobility rentals and accessibility assistance provider and certifier, explained that the travel supply chain used to view this type of customer as a burden.
“However, as the population ages and awareness heightens, the supply chain recognizes the enormous growth of servicing people who have special needs,” Garnett said. “In many instances, they actually now view this as a revenue center.”
Cruise lines were the first segment of the travel industry to embrace this market, Kennedy said. “These huge floating cities tend to be very accessible in every aspect, including elevators, pool lifts, and plenty of accessible cabins in several different price ranges.”
However, there are still challenges such as access to onboard activities and access in the ports. In addition, passengers with disabilities may not be able to participate in shore excursions when ships use smaller vessels to ferry passengers to land, Garnett noted.
Lodging companies like AccorHotels are committed to inclusion, not only for guests, but also the workforce.
In a statement, Accor highlighted a number of inclusive initiatives, such as the “Smart Room,” which it introduced in 2017 for people with reduced mobility.
Accor also launched an app that allows travelers to review the accessibility of the places they visit to enable people with reduced mobility to identify the businesses that meet their needs.
Kennedy told Skift the hotel industry has improved over the past 10 years, to the point that the major hotel brands such as Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, and Holiday Inn provide good standards of access.
“There can be issues with poorly designed roll-in showers and it is usually difficult to find an accessible room with more than one bed, but otherwise these chains are offering things like lowered closets, more accessible restrooms, and open-frame beds,” he said.
Airlines are trying especially hard to accommodate travelers with disabilities, and they do recognize that the sector is a huge untapped market, Kennedy said.
“Most major airlines have also now formed some sort of internal or external disability advisory board made up of people with various types of disabilities who help them with their disability policies and procedures,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), “a carrier cannot require an individual with a disability to provide advance notice of his or her intention to travel or of his or her disability as a condition of receiving transportation or of receiving services or accommodations required by this part.”
Nonetheless, for the traveler’s convenience, it is always advisable to keep the airline informed of special requirements to ensure a trouble-free trip. The U.S. Department of Transportation advises travelers with disabilities to check ahead if they need a wheelchair or other guided assistance to board, deplane, or connect to another flight; a seating accommodation that meets their needs; and/or the loading and stowing of any assistive device.
While other forms of transport have adapted, experts point out that buses and coaches are probably still the least accessible way to travel long-distance.
“A lot of buses still need to be retro-fitted with a lift, and even if a bus has a lift, oftentimes operators are not sure how to work them as they don’t get used very often,” said Kennedy. “There are definitely some accessible buses out there, but, personally, this is not my favorite way to travel.”
Training for Advisors
The Association of British Travel Agents sees helping the travel industry offer holidays that are accessible as an essential part of its work, along with ensuring people can travel with confidence, said Senior Destinations and Sustainability Manager Clare Jenkinson.
“Training travel industry staff on disability awareness — from travel agents to tour operator representatives based here and in resort — can help them ask the right questions to truly understand a customer’s needs and help them find the most suitable holiday and get any extra support they may need.
“ABTA’s Accessible Tourism e-learning tool offers them the opportunity to build on their knowledge of accessible tourism. We also have practical guides on accessibility and checklists available for free to ABTA Members via the Member Zone,” she said, adding that the association is also hosting a seminar on accessible travel on May 8, which will offer practical support on a range of accessibility subjects in connection to travel and tourism.
The American Society of Travel Advisors works closely with Garnett’s Special Needs Group. The Special Needs Group Certified Accessible Travel Advocate program, launched in 2011, aims to heighten awareness of what is possible for this market. The program has so far certified over 5,500 travel professionals.
Kennedy urges travel advisors to “do some homework” if they want to assist travelers with disabilities. “They need to seek out disability organizations in their area and not only get the organizations involved in their process, but also to get people with disabilities involved in their training.”
He recommends Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit working in tourism and transportation that offers specialized accessibility training.
“They do disability etiquette and sensitivity training, training on handling customers with disabilities, as well as ADA training for airlines, airports, Amtrak, cruise lines, and motor coach, and they have also worked with some lodging companies and hotel chains,” he said.
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Photo credit: A robot hands a basket containing drinks to a woman on March 15, 2019 during an event in Tokyo tied to the upcoming Olympics. Associated Press