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How the Travel Industry Can Become More Accessible for All

Tova Sherman, CEO of ReachAbility, details the changes the travel industry can make to become accessible and inclusive for all.

Traveling as a disabled person has challenges that most people never have to think about. A person with special needs should be able to experience the world even though it can be challenging at times. In this day and age, traveling is more accessible than it has ever been before–but it could still be better.

According to the CDC, 26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability. People with unique abilities might feel more comfortable traveling if they felt their needs could be met. With a wide range of physical, mental, and hidden disabilities, it can take “thinking outside the box” for the travel industry to meet each person’s unique needs.

I spoke to award-winning Inclusion Leader and CEO of reachAbility, Tova Sherman, whose NGO serves individuals who face barriers to inclusion and community participation. Her trail-blazing approach to equalizing the playing field around disability at work has led her to be a highly sought-out presenter and consultant to businesses and individuals across Canada & The US. Her recently released title; Win, Win, Win: The 18 Inclusion-isms You Need to Become a Disability Confident Employer is only the latest accomplishment from this passionate innovator, who reiterated her thoughts about what changes the travel industry can make to become accessible and inclusive for all.

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What can travel companies do to become more inclusive for those with disabilities?

TS: The first step is also the most important; to acknowledge that bias–whether conscious or unconscious–exists when we think about people with disabilities. By acknowledging our information on disability is built on mostly myths or generalities we open ourselves and our teams to replacing those long-held myths with facts. Facts like, according to Open Doors Organization, the disability travel industry generates 17.3 billion US dollars a year. This foundational work is crucial to being disability confident allies.

What are 3 key changes (or more) that hotels and airlines can make to become more accessible for people with cognitive and mental disabilities, for example, people with down syndrome and/or autism?

Tova Sherman

TS: First, be genuinely curious and don’t assume you know what neurodiverse people need. Being curious is not as simple as it sounds. But it is the only way to ensure your customers feel heard and included. I often say people don’t come with instructions and that means ‘just because you know Tova, [that] doesn’t mean you know what every potential customer on the ADHD Spectrum may require’. Secondly, train your staff; all the wide ramps and electric doors in the world will not replace the fear/discomfort in the eyes of a frontline person who is alarmed or even rude to a person who displays neurodiversity–just because they were not provided access to education. Third, in a more material way, I recommend alternate check-in times be offered to those requiring a low sensory experience for themselves or a member of their family. If that is not feasible perhaps even a quiet room to complete the process. These are just a few examples of simple steps that make a huge difference.

Airline staff needs to be trained on how to handle wheelchairs during transport properly. It’s not uncommon for wheelchairs to get damaged. What training can airlines provide their employees on wheelchair safety and disability awareness so this doesn’t happen?

TS: You answered your own question. Without access to accurate unbiased information through a combination of education (learning) and osmosis (opportunities to work alongside persons with disabilities or perhaps a family member), no one is going to be particularly inclusive. In the matter of wheelchairs and damage–treating assistive equipment at least as well as golf clubs should be a no-brainer–especially when you realize a wheelchair is literally an extension of the person using it. This is why I began the accessible tourist platform to ensure access to practical information not just for the travelers with disabilities, their family, friends, and the travel agents booking them–but for the accessible hosts who (through an ongoing commitment to inclusion from the top down) require common sense training in order to feature and share their efforts to be inclusive. A true win, win, win!

How can the travel industry accommodate someone who gets overstimulated and has sensory issues, such as people with autism?

TS: As mentioned earlier, low sensory spaces can help a lot and are a simple way to accommodate. I have also recommended to hoteliers that cute kid’s teepees be kept near the front desk to allow parents who have kids requiring a quiet place to set up in the room. After all, what kid wouldn’t like a cool place to set up shop.

People with cognitive disabilities such as down syndrome need things simplified. What can travel companies do to help with this?

TS: The single largest disability classification in the world is cognitive; meaning more people living with disabilities have a cognitive disability than any other type (physical, mental, sensory, or invisible). That is why training (like reachability has been providing for over 20 years) is so important in this growing sector. As I said: people don’t come with instructions and for everyone with a cognitive disability, the need may be different. That said, there are some easy ways to simplify the check-in process for everyone–it is all part of Universal Design (creating things that benefit as many people as possible) something the travel industry understands all too well. For example; providing a 5 step check-in tool would be a great example of simplification for the benefit of all. Instead of another auto-generated, “you are due to check-in” email. Imagine how appreciative travelers would be to have a clear 3-5 step check-in process that not only simplifies and lets people know what to expect but also clearly encourages folks (who may require accommodation before arrival) to ask for it! Now that is a Win, Win, Win!

It can be challenging for anyone to get around a new city. I have personally struggled with this when my phone has died, and I was unable to use GPS while exploring a city. What tips can you give to someone that may struggle with directions and not have access to GPS?

TS: Due to my cognitive disability I am terrible with directions, and I can tell you firsthand that there are a number of ways to bypass some of those challenges. First, I call ahead to where I am going, I tell them I require clear landmarks as reading street signs can be difficult for me. I am referring to directions like, “Go to the red schoolhouse and turn right (that is Fodors Street) just keep going until you see the Acme Gas Station–if you hit the IHOP you went too far”.

This kind of direction giving is part of the basic training I provide tourism outlets across North America. I often will show learners how to give directions that are inclusive to everyone–there is that Universal Design again!

Many people with disabilities can’t drive, myself included. Do you have any tips for getting around more rural areas?

TS: Just like anyone who cannot drive for reasons [ranging] from disability to never bothered to [take] the test–my advice is the same; do your homework! Meaning research where you want to go, reach out to the rural community you wish to visit and ask them how they can help and what resources may be available to get you from point A to B. Remember: don’t be discouraged if you have to go through a few calls before you find what you need. I always say: you are likely 5 calls (degrees of separation) from the person who can really help so be patient and don’t wait until the last minute to do the research.

What can the travel industry do to help people with disabilities visit developing countries that might not be very accessible?

TS: Find bloggers and vloggers with similar disabilities from sensory to physical to cognitive who have been there before you. In a sense, they have blazed a trail for you to follow. I follow so many talented informative bloggers and vloggers and they provide invaluable information no tour guide tells you–at least not yet!

I have hidden disabilities, and many times, people don’t believe that I need accommodations. What tips would you give someone with hidden disabilities that may struggle to advocate for themselves and get the help they need?

TS: My husband, a big burly guy, has the same issue. No one believes he cannot lift more than 25 pounds–but the big guy had his back broken and believe me he cannot. I believe there is so much more we can do. For instance, airlines could allow for two pieces of luggage (each a maximum of 25 pounds vs the 1 bag rule that allows only the strongest the ability to pack and travel with up to 50 pounds of luggage). This is not about providing special treatment, it is about equalizing the playing field for everyone. After all, when I travel, I want to tell people what I did–not focus on how I did it!