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Disabled travellers are finally getting some long-awaited attention

Airlines, hotels, and other tourism-related companies are all making upgrades to accommodate this previously underserved community

Photo (c) Cunaplus_M.Faba - Getty Images
The landscape for the disabled traveler is changing quickly and proactively. With an estimated 100 million disabled travelers a year accounting for more than $34 billion in tourist-related revenue, the travel world is more alert and motivated than it’s ever been.

According to a research study by the Open Doors Organization, of the people with disabilities who took more than 73 million trips for business and/or pleasure, 72 percent said they encountered major obstacles with airlines and 65 percent experienced problems at airports.

However, airlines seem to be getting the message and making improvements. The recent changes in how service animals are regarded adds a level of respect for those in need of that type of assistance, but also draws a line in the sand to make sure that passengers don’t abuse the airlines’ allowances.

The changes don’t stop with service animals, though. In 2017, United Airlines started making its airport self-service kiosks more accessible to travelers with sensory or mobility impairments. Other airlines have followed suit, replacing the old kiosks with ones that have the new technology.

Disabled travellers are also beginning to see adaptations once they get on board.

“We want all customers to feel comfortable on board, which is why earlier this year we began offering a new main menu category on our seatback entertainment that is labeled ‘Accessible Entertainment’”, wrote United Airlines’ Andrea Hiller to ConsumerAffairs.

“This new section makes it easier for customers with hearing and vision challenges to find accessible entertainment options, grouping all of the titles that are either audio descriptive or closed captioned in one main menu category.”

Other airlines have also joined United in making modifications for the disabled tourist. Southwest has implemented an option which allows travelers to purchase an adjoining seat and have it refunded after flying and JetBlue has launched its Blue Horizons for Autism program.

Tell one, tell all

The domino effect when a disabled traveller has a bad experience is substantial. Everyone up and down the travel food chain is affected, from the airport to the airline to the traveler’s destination plans.

A recent example of the disabled community taking up arms is through a Change.org petition in which close to 200,000 have voiced concern over Britain’s Govia Thameslink Railway. The service reportedly told staff to refrain from helping people with disabilities in accessing their train if there is a possibility that offering assistance will make the service late.  

The social media community for disabled travellers is vast, with groups focused on everything from wheelchair-adapted transfers to deaf travellers who create videos about their experiences.

The disabled community is also quick to update its peers when destinations like the Vatican modify its accessibility upgrades. It also often raises pertinent questions on changes like the recent environmental move away from plastic straws.

“Could disabled persons travel with a metal straw (like how people now carry metal water bottles to avoid plastic ones?) Or if its dangerous, a personal reusable plastic one?,” Tweeted one observer.

Changing the perception changes the outcome

According to the American Institutes for Research (AIR) -- a behavioral and social science research organization -- the sermon to businesses, including the travel industry, is simple: improving customer service for people with disabilities will yield loyalty and reduce risk.

And, as any consumer knows, the experience starts with the employees they encounter. That notion isn’t lost on travel providers like United, which scored 100 percent in the disability quality index.

“Since announcing our partnership with Special Olympics in March, nearly 25,000 employees at our hubs have received new training, part of which is dedicated to issues people with Intellectual Disability face when they travel. By the end of this year, more than 60,000 United frontline employees will have participated,” said United’s Hiller.

On top of the consumer market upside, AIR’s authors take it one step further.

“Businesses benefit from hiring people with disabilities by increasing the diversity of their labor force, inspiring innovation, and improving productivity; they benefit from an increase in favorable public perception.”

Marriott Hotels, as an example, took the needs of the disabled to heart at its Orlando World Center. In a revamp of ADA-related (Americans with Disabilities Act) features at the resort, accessible room features now include roll-in showers and bathtubs with grab bars. Some rooms even offer accessibility features for the hard of hearing.

Do you know a disabled traveller?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wants the disabled traveler to know it’s on their side as well.

The agency has stepped up its efforts to make sure its role in the travel experience makes things as disabled-friendly as possible. Interested travellers can do everything from requesting an interpreter or special accomodations at the agency’s resource center for disabled travellers. It has also produced a video that outlines what to expect when traveling with a mobility aid.

For more information on travel accommodations for the disabled, readers can visit Department of State’s website here.

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