21 years on from the ADA we still only have Accessibility

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ENAT Member, Bill Forrester writes: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has come of age and this year we have seen some very significant upgrades to outdoor standards, access to swimming pools, new provisions for information and the requirement to provide booking options for accessible facilities,but have we achieved Inclusion?

ENAT Member,  Bill Forrester writes: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has come of age and this year we have seen some very significant upgrades to outdoor standards, access to swimming pools, new provisions for information and the requirement to provide booking options for accessible facilities,but have we achieved Inclusion?'

The answer unfortunately is no. The world, not just the US, is still in a compliance mentally, based on human rights obligations. The tourism and hospitality industries have failed to grasp the size of the Inclusive Tourism market and still does not regard the disabled tourist as a customer. They are still a compliance, risk management problem that can accommodated through a series of procedures and disability action plans despite the overwhelming research indicating that the ageing demographic is making this the fastest growing market in tourism.

In 2007 we were newcomers to accessible tourism. Travability was formed as an information portal to provide accessible information where the industry had failed to do so. We are not alone and many have been developing their own excellent sites, and continue to so as the demand for information increases.

The real issue going forward is how do we as a group change the perception of the mainstream tourism industry. A plethora of good information sites is one thing but unless the general traveller with disabilities knows where to look the information remains as illusive as it always was. Governments are no better and many around the world continue to fund small and ineffective groups to compile and maintain a database of accessible venues, attractions and accommodation. The result is the same as our own web sites namely the information is hard to find unless you know about it and often out of date due to the length of time between reviews.

At the risk of getting controversial what did the ADA, and the various other Acts around that it spawned, actually achieve? There is no denying that it forced built infrastructure to become more accessible by setting standards for minimum compliance. For the first time rights of access were enshrined into the building code. We must remember, however, that those standards were based on the principles of Universal Design, which at their heart were conceived to be innovative. They were principles to encourage future generations of designers and operators to think about access not in terms of the physical infrastructure but to think of design in terms of making those environments inclusive. As I have said before true inclusion should just blend in, not be a piece of infrastructure with blue and white disabled signs plastered all over it. 21 years on there is now a lot of very good examples of accessible infrastructure but there is still a dearth of information, and where that information exists it is devoid of useful detail to allow people with disabilities to make an informed travel decision.

Worse still, most of it is out of date.

The very nature of compliance tends to lead to a real disconnect between those who are designing and building something to those who are finally operating and marketing it. Compliance with building regulations etc are all done in the design and building phase. By the time the operators come in to run any establishment everything is already there. Often the reason for the accessible facilities are not fully understood and even less understood are the needs of the disabled traveler. Further these facilities are often regarded as dead money as no one ever uses them. Marketing is limited to, if at all, a throw away line to the effect that we have accessible rooms or facilities. This seems to be based on the fact that operators regard all disabled travellers as being the "same" There is no comprehension that the needs are different for every disability. The same operators and marketers, however, are perfectly capable of describing the subtle differences between 20 or more different room types to create an "upsell" opportunity.

What is the real issue going forward? Information is not being presented because operators do not understand what level of detail is needed because they have no real understanding for the needs of the disabled traveller. If we are honest with ourselves our own presentations and level of detail vary greatly but we are developing various approaches that give a combination of technical descriptions, measurements and digital imagery. These three core elements were confirmed to be the real needs of people with disabilities by the research of Simon Darcy. The issue now is how to we get that information into the mainstream travel information.

Accessible rooms and hotel reservation systems

On the 15th of March, 2012 changes to the ADA in the United States required hotel and resort operators to provide information on their accessible facilities and provide the ability to book, within the normal reservation systems an accessible room. A summary of those requirements, prepared by Michael Carrasco, DC Disney Travel Examiner, is as follows:

  • allow accessible rooms to be booked in the same ways for people with disabilities as for people without disabilities
  • have access to information available about those rooms that are descriptive enough for the person to decide whether the room will meet their needs (including photos or other images)
  • include information about which features which rooms have, including which are accessible with roll in showers and which have tubs with grab bars
  • reserve and hold a specific room for that specific guest with a disability. Those specific rooms must be actually removed from the reservation system (to avoid double booking and ensure that when the guest arrives the room they needed was available for them)
  • hold accessible rooms back for reservation by people with disabilities until all non-accessible rooms of that type/class have been rented.

We have already seen a major effort to have these regulations watered down or delayed. The real issue is that the industry is only seeing the cost impost and does not have its eyes open to the value and competitive advantage that having good access affords. Unfortunately the tourism industry does not view inclusive tourism as a market otherwise the accessible rooms would have long been seen as an asset and received the same marketing treatment as every other room type. Instead they have been built as a result of legislation compelling industry players to provide a set of facilities. There has been no market basis behind the decision to build accessible infrastructure and its roots lie in the worldwide adoption of Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Inclusive Tourism Market

The current estimates for the Inclusive Tourism market put its value at 11% of the total market.

US research by McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2015, the baby boomer generation will command almost 60 percent of net U.S. wealth and 40 percent of spending. In many categories, like travel, boomers will represent over 50 percent of consumption. The impact on the Inclusive Travel sector is significant as over 40% of them will be retiring with some form of disability, raising the total value of direct expenditure to the Inclusive Tourism sector to over 25% of the market by 2020.

We have already stated that there is a disconnect even at the infrastructure owners level because they do not see the link between the assets they have been “forced” to provide and the emerging market demand. That issue is exacerbated by the supply chain of the tourism industry.

The wholesalers and tour operators package components to create offerings to the retail sector of the industry. The very nature of the packaging involves homogenous offerings and block bookings of room types. Accessible rooms are never included in the blocks and hence never included in wholesaler destination brochures or included in tour packages. Further tour operators do not market their tours as “Inclusive” do not block any accessible rooms and do not schedule accessible coaches into their itineraries even though the rooms exist and the coach equipment is available.

At the retail level the industry is driven by targets and override commissions. All of the major retail chains, whether company owned or franchised, work on preferred supplier arrangements. Only the major wholesalers and tour companies can afford the cooperative marketing fees associated with those cooperative arrangements or the level of override commissions demanded. Disability specialists do not have the resources to gain entry to the major retailers.

The online market is much the same although in the United States the Expedia case changed the landscape in at least forcing it to offer booking and search facilities for accessible hotel rooms. It is interesting to note, however, that only applies within the United States and Expedia does not offer that service outside the US.

The average retail travel consultant has no knowledge of the requirements of the disabled traveller and even if they do the information is now too far removed from the operators for it to be available. Most disabled travelers are aware of that and either find specialist agencies or go direct and put their own packages together. The major change steaming up on the tourism industry is the retiring Baby Boomers, who will not identify themselves with the disability sector and will expect the facilities and services to be readily available through the distribution channels they have used throughout their lives.

Inclusive Tourism has been adopted more quickly where it is driven from above as a whole of government approach. Where it becomes tourism policy for a country, as has recently been evidence with Barbados, or a tourism region then adoption is rapid as the economic story is sold to the industry as a whole. The economic message changes perception from a compliance problem to gaining competitive advantage challenge, the latter will always create innovation in design and customer awareness and service.

The following diagram highlights the steps need to change the culture away from "compliance" to one of full inclusion. Unless Inclusion is adopted into the mainstream it will always be a hard to find afterthought.

Diagram of Inclusive Tourism Strategy - key elements


The key underlying assumption of the above is that "Inclusive Tourism" is seen as a valid market and travelers with a disability are seen as customers.  The key transition is from supplying or building the infrastructure to fully incorporating it into the tourism offering. The cultural change that needs to occur is the recognition and the understanding of the needs of the disabled traveler. Accessible infrastructure has to be seen as a competitive advantage and the principles of Universal Design applied to product development, staff training and, most importantly, information provision. 

Inclusive tourism will not work until it is fully incorporated into the tourism industry and until it is incorporated into all mainstream product offerings and retail sales.  

In other words it has to be seen as "just another product offering" catering for another market sector.

To advance true inclusion in the tourism and hospitality industries more is need to educate the major players across the whole of the sector. The culture has to change to make Inclusive Tourism into a "product". It is not just about access it is about the whole destination and all of the experiences that make it up. Tourism is about discovery, it is not about a hotel rooms with roll-in showers.

Selling travel is about selling dreams but unfortunately, despite 21 years of the ADA, travelers with a disability are still regarded as a nightmare.


Reprinted from Travability (c) 2012, http://travability.travel/blogs/ada_next_20_years.html