Skift Take

Inclusion is great, but let's keep in mind that there's more to disabled accommodations than providing a wheelchair. Catering to different types of disabilities makes good business sense.

If you’ve ever been to a museum, you know the number one rule is to keep your hands to yourself and not touch the displays. But for someone with an invisible or sensory disability, these decades-long practices are more a deterrent than an incentive to visit.  

Companies across the travel industry realize they’re missing out on revenue by not servicing the invisible disabled community with trillions of dollars in disposable income. How are policies changing to become more inclusive and allow sensory-friendly programming? 

Once a month on “Sensory Saturday,” the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Southport removes voice recordings throughout the museum, dims the lights, and offers hands-on crafts for visitors with sensory disabilities during the two-hour program.  

While many companies offer standard disabled accessibility for people with mobility restrictions, providing these accommodations is important because sensory disabilities restrict how a person perceives or interacts with the world around them. These include anything affecting the five senses, such as blindness or deafness, autism, and hypersensitivity or sensory processing disorders.

Museums and attractions are clearly understanding why would anyone want to spend money on something they or someone in their group can’t enjoy? To put it in perspective, in the U.S. alone, 61 million people or one in four are living with a disability, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Globally, over two billion people have vision impairment, the World Health Organization states.  

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people desire choices, including inclusive and accessible accommodations for their specific disability from museums to attractions and cruising.  

The North Carolina maritime museum’s program creation has led to the museum becoming a certified autism center through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) and the museum offering inclusive internships.   

“There is definitely more of a focus now on inclusion and accessibility — most organizations want to provide the best experience for visitors with a variety of needs, they just need assistance and a process to do so, which is where IBCCES comes in with certification and ongoing support and professional development,” said IBCCES spokesperson Meredith Tekin.

The Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C., have been offering Access Smithsonian since the 1990s, an office solely dedicated to visitors with disabilities, a Smithsonian spokesperson said.  

During the pandemic, the Smithsonian began offering online programming for anyone with a disability or unable to attend in person. The spokesperson said that online programs include accessibility features such as visual descriptions, sign language interpretation, and captioning. 

Pre-pandemic, the Smithsonian offered “Morning at the Museum,” a rotating program at its museums and the National Zoo on certain Saturdays and Sundays for children, teens, and young adults with sensory disabilities.  

While the Smithsonian museums are free to the public, museums and the travel industry can benefit from how the national and N.C. maritime museums have incorporated sensory-friendly programming.  

In reality, the old saying of putting ourselves in other’s shoes could be a game changer in providing accessibility across the travel industry. In fact, there’s a lot the travel industry can learn from a family member’s personal account of traveling with autism.

On the cruise line front, many cruise operators offer accommodations for passengers with disabilities. 

Royal Caribbean welcomes service dogs and offers close-captioned television, large print materials, a visual-tactile alert system, braille in staterooms, TTY, assistive listening devices, and sensory-friendly movies, games in its kid’s programs. On some cruises, the company offers American sign-language interpreters, the company said on its website.  

For travelers with autism and other developmental disabilities, Royal Caribbean offers customized karaoke, group excursions. Hosting dedicated cruises in collaboration with Autism on the Seas, an international organization dedicated to making vacations fun and accessible for people with autism and other related disabilities.  

The Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), a global cruise industry trade association, has been working closely with the International Maritime Organization since the 1970s in creating a regulatory framework for passenger ships to accommodate people with disabilities, said a CLIA spokesperson. 

For whatever reason, maybe because of a lack of resources for traveling or previous bad experiences, many in the disabled community rely on word of mouth or using companies known to cater to their needs. Others do a search on the internet, so it’s important to make accessible information a company provides easy to find.

Certifications are an effective way of showing customers and investors you’re committed to inclusivity and have the proper training to serve the disability community better. The trend seems to be catching on in the cruise industry, museums and attractions.

For example, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean are certified through the Autism on the Seas Foundation’s autism-friendly cruise line standard and certification program

Certified at the Silver training level, the foundation’s second level of training, according to its website, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean youth staff on North American departing fleets have basic awareness training about autism and other developmental disabilities.  

On the other hand, Carnival Cruise Line chose a different route for certification. It is the only cruise line to be certified “sensory inclusive” through its partnership with KultureCity, a U.S.-based nonprofit catering to the accessibility needs of all sensory disabled people, including military veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  

“One in six individuals have a sensory need and they oftentimes deal with social isolation. We believe in making the ‘nevers’ possible and ensuring that individuals with sensory needs are accepted and included in the community – this means coffee shops, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, and travel,” said Uma Srivastava, KultureCity’s executive director.  

In addition to a list of services, including a personal safety briefing upon request and KultureCity sensory bag filled with essentials to calm and relax a sensory disabled traveler, Carnival provides additional accommodations for deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or low vision guests. A look at the KultureCity “Sensory Inclusive” interactive map shows Carnival currently has 23 ships of the 24 in its fleet sensory inclusive certified. 

Many amusement parks, including popular destinations like Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Universal, offer accommodations, breakrooms, or planning guides for guests with sensory disabilities. Sesame Place and Sea World are among only five theme parks in the U.S. and the indoor Kizmondo in Doha, Qatar, currently Certified Autism Centers through IBCCES. 

Marlene Valle, a deaf traveler who presented at the Skift Global Forum in September, was right when she said accessible travel is a human right and not something to be checked off a list.

While it’s a start for enhanced inclusivity, travel professionals should and need to do more to embrace the portion of the population with sensory disabilities and make that information prominent and easy to find on websites for consumers to find.

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Tags: accessibility, accessible travel, cruises, disabilities, museums, sensory disabilities

Photo credit: The Carnival Freedom, one of the cruise ships certified to be Sensory Inclusive by KultureCity and providing accessibility for guests with sensory disabilities. Rapidfire / WikiMedia

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