Disabilities do not have to make travel impossible. Most high-income nations have implemented strict requirements for accessibility by law in recent decades, and the US legislation on that topic even served as a model for a UN agreement. That being said, some places – whether through carelessness or lack of resources or historical restrictions – are rather hard to access for people with some disabilities. Common problems include sidewalks marred with potholes and or blocked by poles protruding at odd angles, which make walking a challenge even for the healthy and greatly inhibit mobility in a wheelchair, insufficient or non-existent public transit infrastructure, unthoughtful currency design, and needlessly noisy restaurants.
Accessible tourism is the ongoing endeavour to ensure tourist destinations, products and services are accessible to all people, regardless of their physical limitations, disabilities or age. It encompasses publicly and privately owned tourist locations. The term has been defined by Darcy and Dickson (2009, p34) as:
Accessible tourism enables people with access requirements, including mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions of access, to function independently and with equity and dignity through the delivery of universally designed tourism products, services and environments. This definition is inclusive of all people including those travelling with children in prams, people with disabilities and seniors.
Modern society is increasingly aware of the concept of integration of people with disabilities. Issues such as accessibility, design for all and universal design are featured in the international symposia of bodies such as the European Commission. Steps have been taken to promote guidelines and best practices, and major resources are now dedicated to this field.
A greater understanding of the accessible tourism market has been promoted through research commissioned by the European Commission where a stakeholder analysis has provided an insight into the complexities of accessible tourism. Similarly, the Australian Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre funded an Accessible Tourism Research Agenda that sought to outline a research base on which to develop the supply, demand and coordination/regulation information required to develop the market segment. The research agenda has now seen three other funded projects contribute towards a research base on which the tourism industry and government marketing authorities can make more informed decisions.
As of 2008, there were more than 50 million persons with disabilities in Europe, and more than 600 million around the world. When expanded to include all beneficiaries of accessible tourism, as defined above, the number grows to some 130 million people affected in Europe alone. According to the World Report on Disability by World Health Organization and the World Bank in 2011, over 1 billion of people in the world had some disability, of whom nearly 200 million experienced severe difficulty in functioning.
In addition to the social benefits, the market represents an opportunity for new investment and new service requirements, rarely provided by key players in the tourism sector.
According to ENAT, the European Network for Accessible Tourism, accessible tourism includes:
Barrier-free destinations: infrastructure and facilities
Transport: by air, land and sea, suitable for all users
High quality services: delivered by trained staff
Activities, exhibits, attractions: allowing participation in tourism by everyone
Marketing, booking systems, web sites & services: information accessible to all
Blind and visually impaired
In most parts of the world, airports and train stations are generally manageable places for a blind or visually impaired person with reasonable mobility skills, except for the navigation problems caused by fast-moving crowds. Plan extra time to get from one place to the other, and let the teeming hordes pass you by. For airport security, you’ll need to know what you’ve put on the scanner to be X-rayed, and how to describe it when it comes out the other end. If they have a question about some of your hand luggage, then you won’t be allowed to touch it to confirm that it’s yours before they’ve double-checked it. So if a security officer vaguely asks someone in your direction, “Is this yours?”, be ready to say that you brought a black wool jacket, a MacBook Air laptop, a black leather briefcase, and an iPhone in a silicone rubber case.
The quality of bus service varies much more, and your next stop after the plane or train may be the local bus or a hotel shuttle bus. Some cities have speaking buses, accessible apps that you can download to plan your route, and braille labels on the stop buttons. In other places, you have to rely on the driver to tell you what bus you’re getting on, which direction it’s going, and when it’s your stop.
If you have some vision, then mark your luggage in a way that will let you identify it. There won’t be too many people with their suitcases covered from edge to edge in a large X or other shape made with neon pink duct tape. If you need something that doesn’t rely on vision, then consider a specialized electronic speaking device or a tactile pattern, perhaps made of knots in thin rope very securely wrapped around the handle.
Once you’re there
There are a few hotels that specialize in blind and visually impaired guests. These hotels provide high-contrast features, talking elevator controls, room keys that make it easy to tell which end goes in first, and otherwise understand what makes your life simpler. However, the odds are that you’ll be arriving at a typical hotel. In that case, tell the hotel about any requests you have when you make your reservation. Whenever possible, speak to the local hotel staff about their facility before reserving your room, rather than relying on a central call center. When you arrive, the check-in process will likely be the same as any other transaction, right down to the detail of needing to explain to the clerk how to position your signature card or asking him to use the top edge of your credit card to indicate the bottom edge of the signature line. Ask someone to walk you to your room, at least the first time, so that you can orient yourself, check for nearly invisible glass doors and other obstacles along your route, and also figure out the room key. Some hotels deliver a newspaper to each room in the morning. This tripping hazard can usually be stopped or held at the front desk for you upon request.
If you use any specialized computer tools, such as a screen reader or software for zooming, then bring your own laptop, braille notetaker, or other electronic devices. You almost certainly won’t find what you want in an internet café.
If you’re traveling for work, you may not have time to do much else. But if you are on holiday or otherwise expect to have some time, then consider your options. Ask the hotel staff for help finding your preferred form of transportation, as well as for general advice. If you’re interested in your destination, try signing up for a guided tour, so that you can hear the tour guide describe the history and culture. Large history and art museums sometimes hold special hands-on tours for blind and visually impaired people. A gift shop that sells scale models of famous local buildings and monuments may let you touch them, so you can better understand the places you’ve just visited.
You may also be able to get useful advice about your destination from the local blindness institute at your destination.
In general, travel should be planned for well in advance when traveling internationally with a dog guide. As dogs can carry diseases, special testing, vaccination and paperwork is required in many countries, especially island countries. Countries with such requirements include the UK and Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The US state of Hawaii has very similar requirements, which are more strict than those in use on the US mainland.
Many countries allow dog guides also where dogs are not normally allowed, while most developing countries don’t have laws permitting dog guides in public places.
Deaf and hard of hearing
Travellers who are deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) may benefit from some specific features, such as lights on fire alarms. If you can’t hear fire alarms, then always tell the hotel staff about your hearing situation when you check in.
Almost all restaurants, especially in areas with significant international travel, can take orders from diners who merely point at what they want on the menu. An increasing number of casual restaurants allow ordering online for takeout or delivery, which reduces the risk of miscommunication.
A few restaurants and stores have employees that use sign language. If you’re traveling near a large school for deaf and HOH students, you are likely to find more establishments that are accustomed to patrons who can’t hear well. For example, if you’re near Washington, D.C., then it may be worth a trip across town to its Near Northeast district, to be near the businesses that cater to students and staff from the famous Gallaudet University.
Noise is a problem in many restaurants, and it can affect everyone. Most restaurants will do their best to accommodate people who want to be able to hold a conversation, so it’s worth asking if a quiet table is available. The makers of the SoundPrint app, which aims to crowd-source noise ratings for American restaurants, says that American Chinese and Indian restaurants tend to be less noisy than other types of restaurants in the US.
Infrastructure for the mobility impaired vary widely.
In many countries some categories of establishments, including most public services, are required to be accessible by wheelchair. Even so, it may be good to call in advance, as the door to use may be a locked back door, or it may be temporarily blocked by roadworks.
The permits used for getting to use dedicated parking are partly standardised; a tag from a member country of the International Transport Forum should be valid in nearly all of Europe and North America and in a dozen countries elsewhere. Check.
Keep the following in mind when travelling with or meeting a fellow traveller who happens to be disabled.
If you need to interact with a person with disabilities, then speak directly to that person, in the same manner that you would speak to any other stranger whom you would like to make a favorable impression on. For example, do not ask a blind man’s children what he would like to do; ask him directly.
Do not touch people with disabilities, or any of their equipment or other belongings, without getting their permission first. “May I help you with that?” is more polite than grabbing their things. Be prepared to have your offer of help declined.
People all have varied interests, and once practicalities have been taken care of, a person’s disability is seldom the most important thing in their life. Someone in a wheelchair may prefer to spend the day at a bird sanctuary rather than attend a wheelchair race, and a blind person might prefer discussing the local culture and history of a town rather than the absence of braille on the museum exhibits.
Don’t ask how or when they became disabled. They’re probably bored with telling that story already. Do ask the same things that you would ask any non-disabled person, which includes small talk about your adventures with fellow travellers and requests for advice about local sights and restaurants from people who are familiar with your destination.
Don’t make jokes or say clever things. They have already heard all of them, from “Don’t run over me in that wheelchair” to “I sure wish I could board the plane first”, hundreds of times.
There is no need to talk loudly or slowly to blind people. They can hear you well enough.
Do not pet, feed or otherwise distract a guide dog without first asking the owner’s permission.
Though ignorance, laziness and arrogance probably could be classified as disabilities, they are self-inflicted and do not qualify one to occupy a disabled parking space. These parking spaces are reserved to make it easier for someone in a wheelchair, or who uses crutches or a cane, to enter and exit a vehicle.
At the same time, if you see someone walking from a disabled space alone with no apparent difficulty, don’t jump to the conclusion that the person is not qualified to occupy the space. Disabled parking permits are often available to many people who don’t use wheelchairs, but have other conditions that seriously limit their mobility (such as a leg amputation, certain cardiac or respiratory conditions, or chronic severe pain). The driver may also be going inside to pick up the person who is entitled to use the space, and assist that person in entering the vehicle.
Most people rarely give a second thought to toilets because they are always there and easy to use, but for a person with mobility limitations, using a standard toilet can be very difficult or even impossible. Check on toilet facilities before planning an outing.
Wheelmap has information about wheelchair-accessible places in many countries. The information is rather basic with 3 levels: All rooms accessible, some rooms accessible, not accessible.
Lonely Planet created a free resource for finding accessibility information by country called Accessible Travel Online Resources. The Accessible Travel Forum is a website for sharing information among travelers with disabilities.
European Union / Eurozone
The Euro banknotes and coins are intentionally designed to be easily recognizable by touch. While the ten cent coin is slightly smaller than the five cent coin, it is easily distinguished by its ridge. Similarly the fifty cent coin while bigger than the one Euro coin has a different ridge as well. The European Union also tries to set common accessibility standards, especially in new construction and public transit. Most bus operators and many train operators should be able to accommodate people in wheelchairs, though more rural stations may lack elevators and legacy platforms may not have the right height for current rolling stock.
General awareness of accessibility issues is quite high, although in practice there are still many problems. Most public facilities and many private ones have arrangements for people with wheelchair or hearing aids. Anyhow it is a good idea to call in advance to check any special arrangements (such as entry by a locked back door) and have company that can help with unexpected problems.
Toilets designed for use with wheelchair are common where there is more than one toilet. Public buildings, bus and railway stations and modern shopping centres should be fairly safe bets.
Dog guides are accepted also in e.g. shops, where dogs in general are not allowed. Many traffic lights have audible signals. On buses there is usually a reserved seat behind the driver, but in practice that seat may not have space for the dog but in the aisle. Ask the driver (any fellow passenger can help with translation, if needed).
Where finding a parking lot may be hard, there are often parking space reserved for people with disabilities. There is a special permit to use these parking lots. Foreign permits are recognized, if they have the international symbol.
The railways have cars accessible with wheelchair on most routes. Assistance can be ordered in advance. Local buses in e.g. Turku are equipped for wheelchair access (and using the buses is free, also for a person assisting).
The euro notes and coins are made to be easily distinguished one from another without seeing.
Metsähallitus, responsible for the national parks, gives information on accessibility for each destination, many of which have trails accessible by assisted or motorized wheelchair. The exhibitions at visitor centres are usually accessible.
There are specific regional SMS emergency numbers for those that cannot communicate by voice. These are not posted on the Internet. Enquiries to +358 295-480-112.
ACCESSIBLE JAPAN offers information for tourists with disabilities and other mobility issues with sections including general information, a database of accessible hotels, tourist attraction reviews, equipment rentals and more. They have also published a tour guide book for Tokyo, Accessible Japan’s Tokyo: All you need to know about traveling to Tokyo with a disability.
HEART BARRIER gathers a database of wheelchair-accessible restaurants and shops all around Japan. They include details like slope width and slope, which are not included in Wheelmap.
Wheelchair tours of Machu Picchu are available, as are accessible tours of the Inca Highlands. Apumayo Expediciones is the most established accessible tour operator in the area.
South African National Council for the Blind, 514 White Street, Bailey’s Muckleneuk, Pretoria, ☏ +27 12 452-3811, fax: +27 12 346-4699, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org.
South African Guide Dogs Association, 126 Wroxham Road, Rietfontein, Sandton, ☏ +27 11 705-3512, fax: +27 11 465-3858, ✉ email@example.com.
Royal National Institute of the Blind, London, ☏ +44 20 7388 1266.
While the U.S. for the most part is very good at accommodating disabled travelers, one glaring exception is money for blind travelers. While coins can be distinguished relatively easily by the blind, the physical sizes of the coins do not consistently relate to the value of the coin. Most notably, the dime (10 cents) is physically the smallest coin. The situation for paper currency (notes) is even worse for the blind. All denominations are the same physical size (unlike the euro, in which the notes increase in physical size as the denomination increases), and there are no tactile features that enable blind people to readily distinguish different denominations by feel. The next redesign of each U.S. note will include a tactile feature to better accommodate people who identify currency by touch. The first denomination to be released will be the $10 note, probably in the year 2020. In the meantime, some devices and apps can identify the value of paper money.
National Federation of the Blind, Baltimore, MD, ☏ +1 410 659-9314.
American Council of the Blind, Washington D.C., ☏ +1 202 467-5081.