Mission accessible: how travel is changing for people with disabilities

Things are changing for travellers with disabilities. Boosted by the spending power of the Purple Pound, travel companies are becoming increasingly savvy about expanding trips tailored for travellers with physical and mental impairments. Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Robin Sheppard used to be a hotelier who didn’t know much about wheelchair-accessible rooms. Then, in December 2004, he was struck down by Guillain-Barré syndrome, which affects the nerves. Sheppard would spend the next 18 months in a wheelchair. He began to look at accessible hotel rooms in a different light.

The approach to accessibility was largely, he realised, a box-ticking exercise to comply with legislation. “We had a level of facility, but so many of those spaces had been designed from a functional perspective, not a consumer one. I’d lost my ability to walk, but not my sense of style. I’m ashamed to say I was completely oblivious until I became a consumer — I had an enforced period of observation and realised how hostile the environment was for a disabled person, and how marginalised they were. It was like we were a separate species.”

Sheppard swiftly dedicated himself to changing things. Bespoke Hotels, the company Sheppard co-founded in 2000, is one of the UK’s largest independent hotel groups, with more than 200 properties worldwide. Sheppard’s aim is to close the design gap between its accessible and standard rooms. 

“We [the industry] don’t put enough emphasis on making a disabled room as joyful and stylish as a conventional bedroom,” he says. “Invariably, an accessible room will be close to the lift, have the worst views, and the bathroom fixtures and fittings will be more hospital than smart hotel. There’s even a palpable difference to the niceness of a toilet seat. Functionality wins and style is sacrificed.” 

So, what does true accessibility look like? When it comes to hotel rooms, it’s pretty much identical to a standard room, says Ed Warner, who, as CEO of Motionspot, works with hotels to achieve rooms that are inviting to everyone. Like Sheppard, Warner — formerly in sales and marketing — hadn’t thought too much about accessibility until his friend James Taylor had a diving accident and returned from hospital “to find his house looked more like a care home.” Warner helped him scout out more stylish products, but, he says, “there was very little innovation in the UK at the time.”

In 2012, the pair set up Motionspot to redress the balance, and now work with retail chains, Transport for London and hotel companies. “Hotel rooms were dire, clinical spaces designed to serve a function rather than fit in with the feel of a hotel,” says Warner, who was named a government ‘champion’ of accessible design in 2019. “We work with architects to give them a better understanding of what they could do, and with designers to make sure they’re compliant with the design of the rest of the hotel.”

Motionspot has worked with the National Trust, Jumeirah, Edwardian Hotels and Grange Hotels, as well as Bespoke. Forget clinical-looking grab rails and tatty seats; Motionspot rooms have wide-door showers or wetrooms, with removable grab rails — in chrome or wood — attached to the wall when needed.

But only 6% of people with disabilities in the UK use a wheelchair. So, Motionspot rooms incorporate wider innovations that might not occur to most able-bodied people: continuous colour tone on the floor (people with visual or cognitive impairments could perceive areas of contrast as a step or a hole), contrasting colours for the floors and walls, and suitable lighting — pools of light can confuse those with cognitive impairments. They work on the public areas, too — the acoustics of atriums and receptions can be disorientating for people with autism and hearing difficulties.

Making accessible rooms stylish is good business, it turns out. A 2014 survey revealed that 43% of able-bodied hotel guests offered an accessible room said they’d rather not, and 40% refused it outright. But Motionspot rooms see the opposite effect. A recent project — the renovation of The White Horse in Dorking for Bespoke Hotels — has seen positive feedback from guests with and without disabilities, and a huge return on investment. “The accessible rooms have generated an additional £6,700 per year,” says Warner. “Customers are requesting to stay in these rooms over the others in the hotel. They’re good for families — they’re interconnecting — and for business guests who want a sizeable suite. Accessible rooms can benefit a hotel.”

New horizons

Government figures from 2018 suggest that there are 13.3 million people with disabilities living in the UK. No wonder the power of the ‘purple pound’ is growing — disabled people’s collective spending power is estimated by the Department of Work and Pensions as £249bn per year. Travel companies are catching on.

Philip Scott and his late wife, Jackie, started a travel business in 1985, organising tours of London to a mainly American clientele. A few months later, Jackie was diagnosed with MS.

“We went away with the kids and booked a hotel, saying we needed to be near the lift,” he says. “We did get a room near the lift — but when you came out of it, there was a spiral staircase to get to the room.”

The couple transitioned their tours into an accessible travel business, Can Be Done, scouring the country for adaptive rooms. “Back then, there was very little you could offer anyone,” says Scott. “You didn’t get low-level baths, standalone showers or lowered light switches; you were lucky if you got a peephole in the door, and that was usually too high.”

Today, 90% of Can Be Done’s clients have a disability. The company — which has a 24-hour helpline for guests — works with on-the-ground operators to guarantee accessible holidays from start to finish. Its clients request everything from accessible holidays in Majorca and Harry Potter-themed London visits to cross-Canada train journeys and California road trips. Scott can arrange pretty much anything, he reckons — given time. Even though hotels in Europe, the US and Canada have fully adapted rooms, they may only have a few of them. “We have to tailor every booking and we can quote for a hotel, but we have to check there’s availability for that room,” he says. “And we have to coordinate it with transfers and everything else.”

It’s because of that extra layer of complexity, according to accessible travel blogger Cory Lee, that booking with a specialist tour operator is always a good idea. The 29-year-old American set up his Curb Free with Cory Lee blog in 2013, and now also runs his own fully accessible group tours (with Costa Rica on the programme for 2020). Cory usually starts planning for a trip a year in advance. “Being spontaneous isn’t really possible, because I need to scout out the destination online,” he says. “I need to see what accessible transport they have, which hotel I can stay in — it all takes quite a long time to plan.”

It also costs more than it would for the average traveller. Four years ago, on a Caribbean cruise, Lee wanted to go on a $50 (£38) shore excursion, but the transport used by the cruise line wasn’t accessible. Instead, he had to arrange his trip privately — bumping the price up to $300 (£230). “I’ve found that’s the case in a lot of destinations,” he says ruefully, though he notes that New York and Paris — two destinations that used to be particularly difficult transport-wise — have improved markedly in recent years. But when it comes to hotels, says Can Be Done’s Philip Scott, the lower end of the market tends not to have accessible rooms, so although you won’t pay any more than any other guest in your hotel, you’re likely to be choosing between the three-, four- and five-star properties. 

Traveleyes is another innovative tour operator, launched in 2004 by award-winning entrepreneur Amar Latif, who’s blind. Traveleyes’ group trips bring blind and partially sighted travellers together with sighted guests, who act as their guides. The sighted contingent — 85% of whom have never met a blind person before — receive a 50% discount. 

Traveleyes’ trips tend to be more adventurous than you’d think — they include zip-lining in Costa Rica, husky-sledding in Finland or temple-hopping in Myanmar, for example. They also do charity challenges, from hiking the Great Wall of China to climbing Morocco’s Mount Toubkal. On a recent trip to Mongolia, says tour leader and communications executive Andrew Milburn, the group stayed in traditional ger camps and made them accessible by tying ropes from the tents to the toilets and shower block. 

Milburn, who’s sighted, says that blind and partially sighted people experience a destination in different ways to able-bodied people. “They chat, get up close to things and get involved with the surroundings, where as I’d probably just take a photo, move on and look back later,” he says. “I’ve changed how I travel — I’ll be in a church touching the walls, interacting with buildings now. And that’s what we’re aiming for — not just for blind travellers to experience the world, but also teaching the sighted that it’s not just about looking at things.”

Flying with dignity

You might have found a fantastic tour operator and a magical hotel, but all too often for travellers with disabilities, the journey to your destination of a lifetime can let you down. Cory Lee says his power wheelchair is often damaged by the airline, and Traveleyes’ clients — including Amar Latif — are regularly manhandled into wheelchairs at airports, says Andrew Milburn. The number of passengers at UK airports requiring assistance is growing — 3.7 million requests were made in the last year according to the Civil Aviation Authority, a rise of more than 80% since 2010. The system is struggling to cope, however there are airlines striving to make a difference. EasyJet — which set up an accessible travel advisory group chaired by David Blunkett in 2012 — introduced voice-recognition flight booking via its app this autumn. Virgin Atlantic has several initiatives, including the ability to pre-book (at no charge) cabin crew trained in British Sign Language.

In 2016, UK airports were the first in the world to introduce ‘hidden disability’ lanyards, which travellers wear to alert staff that they may require help. Meanwhile, each winter Cornwall Airport Newquay has open days when passengers with disabilities can take trial runs through the airport experience. It’s a smaller version of the Wings for All programme that migrates around US airports each weekend, and allows passengers with autism to ‘test-run’ the experience right up to the gate.

Getting to a destination is one thing, finding an accessible hotel and transport is another. But discovering a place that’s really thought about accessibility can make the difference between a good trip and a great one. In recent years, forward-thinking tourist boards have been aggregating accessible experiences. New Zealand’s Making Trax initiative has 27 affiliated tour operators offering everything from wheelchair paragliding to sit-down kayaking. Vienna Tourism’s website includes information on renting medical equipment, and gallery initiatives including tours of the Belvedere Palace and art museums for the visually impaired. Saxony’s Sachsen Barrierefrei directory includes 550 accessible travel offerings, from hotels to experiences, while the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana is a great destination for mobility-impaired passengers, offering door-to-door public transport, golf buggy trips around the centre and motorised wheelchair attachments that turn manual chairs into power chairs.

Then there are the individual enterprises, from Morgan’s Wonderland — the world’sfirst fully accessible theme park in Texas — to the Calm Corner at Crewe train station, a comforting environment for hidden disabilities designed by a work experience pupil with Asperger’s syndrome. Even in mobility-challenging Venice, two enterprising gondoliers have created a wheelchair-accessible gondola.

Things have come a long way since Philip Scott set up Can Be Done. And although there’s more to do, innovation in the accessible travel industry is going from strength to strength. “Travel is the best teacher — I’ve learned more on the road than I did in college,” says Cory Lee. “It can be tough at times, and you may want to quit, but push through and it’ll be amazing.”

Take five... companies innovating accessibility 

Disability Snowsport UK
Adaptive skiing and snowsports has been around for years, and Disability Snowsport UK (DSUK) offers instruction throughout the UK and worldwide, aiming for mountain sports to be accessible to all regardless of disability, injury or experience. For 2019/2020, its partner Consensio Chalets, which has accessible properties, will donate a private ski lesson to a DSUK pupil each week. 

All Wheels Up
Cory Lee believes this could be the future of air travel: dedicated wheelchair spaces on planes, like on trains, instead of stashing them in the hold and manually seating passengers. All Wheels Up is designing and crash testing plans, along with lobbying for more dignified flying. 

Blue Badge Access Awards
Bespoke Hotels’ blog Blue Badge Style and charity Leonard Cheshire teamed up in 2019 to launch these awards, which recognise innovative design across all areas of travel, from airports to attractions, as well as hotels, bars and restaurants. They spotlight businesses that aren’t just paying lip service to accessibility, but are genuinely innovating. 

Gondolas4all
Moved by the sight of a boy in a wheelchair looking longingly at their gondolas, Venetian gondoliers Alessandro Dalla Pietà and Enrico Greifenberg worked with architects to design a wheelchair-accessible gondola, with a lift system to get chairs to water level. It’s a symbolic move in a city known for its inaccessibility. 

Travaxy
This new start-up, launched in autumn 2019, aims to be an online booking hub for accessible travel — flights, hotels, transport and mobility aid rental. So far cities are limited to London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Tel Aviv and Berlin, but expect it to grow. You can even flag life-threatening food allergies on your booking. 

Follow @juliathelast

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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