Is the global travel industry failing people with disabilities?

Experts say tourism and hospitality operators still have a lot to do, but there is hope for the sector yet

Amilla Maldives is the first hotel to receive certification for superior inclusivity and accessibility from UK organisation IncluCare. Photo: Amilla Maldives
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The word “holiday” is a trigger of grief for Delphine Watson. It’s a reminder of a time she will likely never experience again. That’s because her son Rio, 20, has a rare chromosome condition called 1q44 deletion de novo, which means he has seizures, intellectual disabilities, sensory sensitivities and he’s non-verbal, so she’s a full-time caregiver whether she’s in Dubai, Spain, Australia or America.

“Going away with Rio is never a ‘holiday’ as others experience holidays – or how I remember from life before Rio,” she tells The National. “To me, it is more the opportunity to experience being elsewhere while looking after Rio.

“The word ‘holiday’ to me associates with words like time out, relaxation, freedom – and travelling now is never any of those words.”

For the Watsons, it is hard work, expensive and logistically stressful. “Being a caregiver, it is often more relaxing being at home, where you have everything in order as you need it and you have your immediate world set up around his needs. There is safety in that.”

However, a growing number of people working in the tourism sector believe it shouldn’t be this difficult.

A sector-wide ‘failure’

The travel industry in general is failing to deliver equitable and authentic opportunities to people with disabilities, says Richard Thompson, founder of IncluCare. This UK organisation is known for driving the “inclusion revolution” throughout the tourism sector by offering inclusive and accessible training, assessment and accreditation.

This industry failure stems from fear, he says. “Fear borne from a lack of understanding that can only be elevated by leadership committing to investing in education for every member of staff that comes to work, and caring for every guest who comes to stay,” he says.

An estimated 1.3 billion people – or 16 per cent of the global population – experience a significant disability today, says the World Health Organisation. This means global spending power of the disabled market is approximately $10 trillion per annum, says IncluCare.

Despite that economic benefit, tourism and hospitality providers still have a long way to go in catering for this market and there is a “complete absence, lack or difficulty in sourcing accessibility and inclusion details that are relevant, authentic and a fundamental requirement to making an informed buying decision”, says Thompson.

“All in all, it is a pretty hostile and unwelcoming environment, which means that the vast majority of disabled people across the globe – despite having the ambition, aspiration, resources and time to explore and discover our planet – do not do so.”

He says it comes down to a lack of trust and confidence, which leads to families such as Delphine’s staying home, where it’s “safer”.

“And that is a shocking state of affairs, which must change.”

An overwhelming task?

It all starts with understanding what inclusion even means – and it's very different to being accessible, says Thompson. “Accessibility is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance,” he recently told the Travel Trade Gazette.

But the sheer amount of physical and hidden disabilities travel providers need to cater to, can make it a daunting task to accommodate, says Narelle McDougall, general manager of Amilla Maldives, the world’s first IncluCare-certified resort.

“It can seem like an impossible task; getting a wheelchair on to a speedboat and a seaplane is an overwhelming thing to be responsible for,” she tells The National. The idea of being liable for a person with disabilities can also put companies off from a legal perspective, she adds.

None of this should be an excuse not to cater for this market, however, and implementations can be made step by step, says McDougall.

“We started with wheelchair access and since then we have attracted guests with dwarfism, muscular dystrophy, motor neuron disease and hidden disabilities such as autism. In each case we prepare for what they tell us are their unique needs and so it is a heart-warming journey where we learn along the way.”

For example, for guests with autism, the staff do not play bodu beru drums on arrival at the jetty, as this can be triggering. Deaf-alert systems and adaptive yoga and snorkelling activities are being implemented, while sensory touch, aroma and sound experiences through the jungle for vision-impaired guests are in the works.

The hotel will also introduce dedicated ‘calming spaces’, which aim to reduce anxiety and stress for guests with autism, learning difficulties or dementia.

“We personalise their villa, even their island bicycles, to ensure they feel genuinely cared for and listened to, and that gives them the freedom to experience the island as richly and stylishly as they wish.”

To receive the IncluCare certification, the hotel needed to prove it has an authentic commitment to caring for every guest and educating the team. They built ramps in all areas, modified villas, educated departmental trainers. Thompson then audited the progress and the whole process took six months.

It’s about so much more than infrastructure, says Thompson. “Most inclusion is created in real-time by empowered, sensitive, confident and caring staff.” He says it’s important for these brands to not only invest in education and understanding, but also to then trickle that message of inclusivity throughout the company, dispelling any myths and misconceptions about “disability”. Only then can a travel business identify and adjust physical and non-physical barriers to guest inclusion.

“And then, crucially, make this provision visible, easy to access and in great, relevant detail. Guests with different mobility, sensory or neurodiverse requirements will simply never come to stay without it.”

‘Fight or flight mode’

This is the kind of thing that puts the Watsons off a place. “However determined you are to be positive and excited about a trip, I find there is always a layer of stress by not knowing what is ahead,” says Delphine, who, along with her husband, runs Team AngelWolf, a non-profit foundation in the UAE that promotes inclusivity.

She finds herself planning for every possible negative eventuality and says her own self-worry is perhaps one of their biggest hurdles to travelling as a family. “It is easy to say that you must keep positive and relax, but when you live a lifestyle of daily rejections, segregation, unfairness, unjustness of rights, then there is a sense of living in constant ‘fight or flight’ mode, especially in situations that are out of your control.”

It starts from the minute they try to book their trip, as there is so much information they need in order to make, what might seem to people without disabilities, very simple decisions.

For example, what airline should they fly? Does the carrier accept DPNA code, an industry code for a special service request for a passenger with intellectual or developmental disability? Can she book wheelchair assistance and the correct dietary meal for Rio to eat on the plane? Rio also has to wear adult nappies and needs full assistance in the bathroom, so Delphine needs to determine how she and her husband might be treated when trying to fit with their son in the tiny aircraft bathroom. In airports and other facilities, what if the toilets aren’t unisex? How does a mother take her adult son?

I believe and have hope [the UAE] will continue to progress and become a leading example to the rest of the world of accessibility and inclusion
Delphine Watson

“At the airport, how will he cope from a sensory perspective with the queuing, the noise, the stress, the distances he will have to walk?” Delphine continues. “On the aeroplane, will Rio sit quietly for the whole journey? If not, will the people around us be understanding? What happens if he has a seizure?”

Rio also needs to share a room with his parents since he requires a caregiver 24/7, but this is often against hotel policies. “Many hotels eventually become more understanding about it, but it takes a very long conversation. Others will not allow it, then the hotel is not accessible to us as it would not be safe for our son.”

The lack of understanding from others, whether a fellow traveller or staff, is one of Delphine's other major stressors.

Thankfully, living in the UAE, where Delphine and her husband have been for 27 years, is the easy part, she says. “The airports have unisex accessible toilets, the sunflower lanyard [a sign for people with hidden disabilities to wear] is recognised, the DPNA code is recognised, there seems to be more a sense that staff have been trained.”

The Dubai Economy and Tourism department announced last year it's spearheading an initiative to become the first Certified Autism Destination outside of the US. Emirates and Dubai International Airport also recently revealed they are improving the travel experience for neurodivergent passengers, facilitating “travel rehearsals” where children can practice their journey through the airport and on-board aircraft. The Dubai airline provides comprehensive information on its website for travellers with disabilities.

“You can see this progression with accessibility all the way through from public transport, to travel and tourism services, hotels and the airport,” she says.

“We don’t feel like an afterthought or a burden – we feel part of the travelling community … I believe and have hope it will continue to progress and become a leading example to the rest of the world of accessibility and inclusion to make the UAE a top destination for travellers with disabilities.”

When will it change?

McDougall has hope for the industry and believes provisions for people with disabilities will become more commonplace. “I hope it isn’t just about legislative compliance, but that more hospitality change-makers genuinely want to show kindness and care,” she says. “Of course, there is an economic benefit, too, if the influencers of change in the industry really think about it.”

There are millions of people out there now thinking they cannot experience a resort or activity, simply because of their situation, she says. “But it is possible. Extra steps just need to be taken to ensure the guest feels safe and comfortable. There is a whole market waiting to visit your property – they just need to feel welcome.”

The opportunities for the travel industry catering to this market are the same opportunities they have for every other customer, says Thompson. “Refinement, innovation, differentiation of product. The opportunity to inspire, schmooze and seduce. To expand aspirations and horizons and secure brand loyalty.”

Most importantly, he says, “to treat disabled clients as they do every other guest”.

Businesses just cannot afford to be seen as excluding people due to their ability any more, says Delphine. “Segregation has to be history.”

Until things change, the Watsons will continue to go abroad, no matter the obstacles, she says. “Because Rio deserves the opportunity to travel and explore the world. He genuinely enjoys it, we need to get away and our daughter deserves the experiences. And if families like ours never travel because it is too hard, then the travel industry will never change and adapt, so the experience gets easier for us all.

“The travel industry needs to hear our voices and our inputs – that is the only way change happens.”

Updated: October 25, 2023, 4:03 AM