Receiving a dire diagnosis or developing a disability is tough but it isn’t always an instant disaster. For many, it quickly focuses personal priorities and adds a new sense of urgent determination to work through bucket-list ambitions.
However, realising those dreams – especially when they include travel – can be a challenge, with all sort of unexpected barriers to be negotiated.
When my own daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour at just 28, we reeled from the shock of course but then dug in for the gruelling treatment and rehabilitation and tried to look ahead to better times.
Like many with challenging conditions, our focus was not on the things Chloe couldn’t do, but on what she could do; on how to make every day a party, and find motivational goals to get us through one step at a time.
Top of her ‘to do’ list as soon as she could was international travel, which was already a big part of her life with back-packing and multiple work trips already behind her.
Initially, we were restricted to favourite UK haunts but her main mission was to go from diagnosis to her dream destination – the Maldives – and we became part of a large and growing market of travellers keen to book but in need of a little special attention.
Chloe got her trip to the Maldives eventually but in researching how to travel with a disability we discovered horror stories abound. Inappropriate and unhelpful airline crews, vital mobility equipment lost or delayed, access denied, massively inflated insurance premiums, insensitive comments and misunderstandings.
It’s a sad realisation when you approach a dream holiday with a new condition and discover some companies are no longer so eager for your business. You have become a worry to them, a check-list of symptoms and requirements, and you feel a liability. This needs to change.
Better recognition of this market is not just for the benefit of disabled travellers, it is also a business necessity, says Richard Thompson, Co-founder and CEO of Inclucare, whose team has developed a set of accessibility and inclusion verification standards for the travel supply chain.
He says: “The global spending power of the disabled market is an estimated $10 trillion per year. This is the last untapped market for the industry and an important one – not least because only 17% of disabled people are born disabled.
One of the main contributors to disability is ageing – and that older population is growing. The disabled market of the future could well be your current customers. The cost of ignoring this market is huge.”
Inclucare’s work so far has produced some shocking results. Of 280 hotels audited, the vast majority did not meet their obligations under equality legislation, buildings codes or both. And in the U.S., where regulations are detailed and prescriptive, hotels are already facing legal action because of these failures. In Europe rules are not as well established and elsewhere regulations are flimsy, but by using the Inclucare app-based audit tool, brands can work on getting it right and differentiate their offer.
Thompson adds: “We predict that within two years, stakeholders will be demanding that providers’ inclusion credentials are up to scratch, much as they do with sustainability now, yet currently many brands aren’t even aware they have discriminatory policies. It’s about understanding that inclusion is not just about the width of doors – it’s a commitment, not a compliance.”
Former investment banker Angus Drummond agrees information on facilities is key. Diagnosed with a rare genetic disabling disorder at 22, he quit his job and travelled to 35 new countries. He then founded Limitless Travel to empower people with disabilities to travel and the company has grown 300% year-on-year since 2017, now organising over 70 tours a year.
He says: “Travel has the power to change lives with multiple mental health benefits, which are much needed after the stress of a disabling diagnosis. We aim to make the world accessible to all and cut the stress they face when booking a holiday.”
Demand is even stronger post-Covid as disabled people have been among the most isolated and are keen to get travelling again.
National disabled holidays charity, Revitalise, reports that thousands of disabled people and carers are longing for a break but find suitable, stress-free holidays hard to find. Accessibility, affordability and stigma are the major barriers encountered and its research shows one in five give up on holiday plans because they can’t find what they need, while a third are blocked by costs.
Ewan Cluckie, founder at destination marketing company, Tripseed, works with the trade on accessible trips to Thailand.
He says: “Our move into accessible tourism was driven by the large gap in the market. No other operators or DMCs had developed a country-wide range of products and services for this segment. Elderly travellers and travellers with disabilities have overwhelmingly been overlooked.”
His team developed tours and activities for travellers with physical disabilities and audio-visual impairments first, and is now tackling invisible disabilities such as cognitive/neurological impairments. Newest to the mix is an accessible tuk tuk tour.
The luxury sector is probably the closest to becoming inclusive because of its inherent attention to personal details. Amilla Maldives Resort and Residences became the first Inclucare-verified resort. Its success prompted government interest in driving accessibility issues forward across islands.
Cruise companies, popular with an older market, also have some advantages, and Saga says it focused closely on accessibility when designing its cruise ships. Both Spirit of Adventure and Spirit of Discovery have wider promenades and gently sloping corridors, with lifts central to the ship.
Good to know
Queensland in Australia has hailed 2023 as the Year of Accessible Tourism and, after recently launching an Accessibility Hub on the destination website, Tourism Tropical North Queensland has added an accessibility user-friendly mode.
ABTA supports those agents and operators keen to move this market forward with two online courses. The first details how to improve service whilst understanding the potential issues and customer needs. The second is aimed at senior staff trying
to identify ways to build a more accessible proposition. Training staff is important and some operators – such as TUI – have dedicated teams that offer guidance.
Airlines have been notoriously slow in providing consistent reliable service to this market but Hidden Disabilities, a business born at Gatwick Airport, is helping ease the journey through airports with a scheme that discreetly identifies those needing special assistance, through the wearing of a sunflower lanyard. It is operational in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, UAE and the USA.
Businesses that can’t quickly change to support the sector should consider reaching out to charities. Iglu Ski, for example, has partnered with the UK’s leading adaptive snowsport charity, Disability Snowsport UK (DSUK), to raise funds to help disabled travellers, and invites every customer to contribute to cause.
Where to book it
Responsible Travel offers an eight-day activity holiday in Spain combining accessible accommodation with a sports club used by Paralympians and a certified disabled horse riding centre. Priced from £661pp excluding flights.