AUSTRALIAN Olympic royalty Kurt Fearnley observed earlier this year that his anxiety levels while travelling in Australia are much higher than in any other region of the world. Speaking on the Uncomfortable Conversations podcast, Fearnley admitted that this heightened state of angst was being driven by myopic rules and regulations in the local air travel sector, protocols he says simply don’t need to be contended with while travelling in places like Europe and the United States.
“My ticket can be cancelled if I turn up to a flight and I’m the third person in a wheelchair to check in, which is still the right of an airline in Australia because I’m considered an OH&S risk,” Fearnley explains.”A person may be more likely to have a heart attack than a person in a wheelchair who is seen to be this fragile thing, but in reality, is quite robust with their approach to life but has never got the chance to define their own life because the wheelchair takes over everything.”
Fearnley’s present-day chagrin may well have been cemented in 2009 when Jetstar was forced to apologise to the sports star for making him check his personal wheelchair in with his luggage. Clearly a man of his convictions, Fearnley famously opted to crawl through Brisbane Airport rather than use an unsuitable chair offered by the airline.
And while these kinds of incidents sometimes make the news cycle because of the profiles of the people involved, the truth is most travel horror stories are rarely brought to light for the countless people with disabilities who don’t fit the typical mould of travel. While all and sundry are feeling the pinch at the moment as the global travel sector splutters back to life under the weight of staff shortages, it’s fair to say that for people living with disabilities, travelling has always been laden with rigmarole and impediments that most able-bodied travellers have never been forced to contemplate.
But outside of the perception that people with disabilities represent a logistical ‘problem’ for companies like airlines, the blind spot that many travel companies exhibit regarding the tailored needs of disabled travellers is another major issue altogether. For Travel Without Limits founder Julie Jones, this is one of the major blights on the Australian travel sector which requires urgent action to rectify.
“A lack of information is definitely a pain-point and why I have such a dedicated community because I provide detailed information in a hotel review which includes things like bed height, toilet height, details and photos of all facilities,” she tells travelBulletin. “Communication is key, if a hotel, attraction or tour operator has an accessibility tab on their home page, to me that’s a welcome mat. I know that they have considered the needs of the disability community and want to let people know what they offer.”
Jones runs Australia’s first disability-specific travel magazine aimed at inspiring the more than four million Aussies currently living with a disability to develop a greater zest for travel. But as she explains, while the landscape is slowly improving in Australia, there is much more work to go before this significant cohort of Aussies is effectively catered for.
“We have a long way to go with air travel for example, domestic flights in Australia do not have accessible bathrooms – it’s a basic human right to be able to access a bathroom,” Jones says. “Passengers are still left waiting for long periods of time for their wheelchairs to arrive at the aircraft door, while damage to wheelchairs caused during handling is not uncommon. Hotels also need to provide photos, videos and floorplans so that people with a disability can decide if a property is right for them. Information empowers this community of travellers.”
In a former life Jones was a travel agent, and so it is sobering to hear her candid thoughts on how travel advisors are currently stacking up in this area – in short, she believes not very well.
“My personal experience has not been particularly positive when booking a trip through a travel agent for our family, which includes my son who is a wheelchair user,” Jones laments. “Every person with a disability has varying needs so it is not surprising that an agent wouldn’t know how to cater specifically to our needs, but there seems to be a lack of training and education regarding the needs of the one in five Australians who live with a disability. A wide range of facilities are now in place and available to travellers with a disability and these need to be highlighted and included in any agent training.”
When asked whether or not the industry should go down the road of cultivating disabled travel specialists, Jones said such an approach would be unnecessary if the sector collectively broadened its approach to be more inclusive and amenable to people’s individual needs.
“We need an inclusive society and that means all travel agents being trained and aware of the facilities available to this travel market,” she says. “Most of all we need people to ask how they can help rather than assuming what is needed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to accessible tourism, an agent may have two clients who are both wheelchair users and their needs may still be vastly different – we need to recognise individual needs and be open to learning.”
While clearly there is a moral imperative to raise the bar in travel for people with disabilities, Jones also argues there is an obvious economic incentive too, pushing back on the myth that catering to accessibility tourism is a fruitless commercial endeavour.
“One in five is not niche, there is compelling evidence that this market is valuable in terms of economic return,” Jones argues.
Meanwhile in the United States, the Department of Transportation established its first Bill of Rights for disabled air travellers earlier this year, a summary document that essentially looks to ensure that Americans understand their basic human rights when travelling in the air. Following on from legislation passed in the Reagan era to protect people from being discriminated against by airlines, the Bill of Rights is viewed as a key piece of communications to reduce discrimination and ramp up transparency around key performance indicators.
“Whether you’re a parent expecting to sit together with your young children on a flight, a traveller with a disability navigating air travel, or a consumer travelling by air for the first time in a while, you deserve safe, accessible, affordable, and reliable airline service,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said upon its release.
The creation of the US travel Bill of Rights has led some in Australia to call for a similar declaration to be rolled out here, particularly given the spate of unsavoury incidents at Aussie airports in recent months.
But while the pace may not be as fast as some desire, there is no doubt the Aussie travel sector is making steady strides towards a more equitable future for disabled Aussies.
One tour operator out to facilitate quicker change is Cocky Guides, which offers unique, multi-sensory adventures in small groups for the blind and low-vision community, as well as dedicated tours with an Auslan Interpreter for deaf travellers or those that sign. Making its splash in 2019, the company has already garnered a reputation for high-quality adventures for the vision and hearing impaired, scoring a finalist spot in the NSW Tourism Awards 2021 and gradually widening its product portfolio over the past two years.
Earlier this month the group also hosted Australia’s first Sensory Tourism Conference for blind and low-vision travellers on the NSW Central Coast.
“Our goal is to inspire blind and low-vision Australians to take the next step towards a new adventure,” founder James “Buck” McFarlane said, with the gathering bringing together famous names such as blind author Tony Giles to speak about his travel adventures.
Improving the profile of accessibility tourism is certainly one important aspect of progress, the other is to see governments and brands make their own headway. In recent times we have seen Vail Resorts release its Epic Australia Adaptive Pass in partnership with Disabled Wintersport Australia to provide equal access for eligible guests with impairments to ski and ride at its Australian resorts, while the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre (BCEC) also recently established multi-sensory and low sensory zones for people on the autism spectrum, PTSD, anxiety and other similar conditions, providing a safe and calm space to seek “time out” from the noise and crowd of live events.
From a public policy perspective, the Victorian Government announced $5.4 million would be spent on making sure a range of tourist facilities across the state are made more accessible to those with a disability from July, building on $5 million already invested to build better tourism accessibility facilities.
Meanwhile the much-maligned aviation sector has seen movement from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), with the industry body launching the Mobility Aids Action Group, an initiative charged with improving the transport journey for disabled travellers with mobility aids. The action plan will be the first of its kind aimed at tackling issues around the safe and secure transport of mobility aids – an issue IATA concedes is of “huge importance to a growing number of travellers”. The objective of the group will be to provide advice and recommendations to airlines and stakeholders concerning the establishment of policy, process and standards related to the handling and transport of mobility aids.
“Every year, thousands of wheelchairs are transported safely by air, however, damage or loss is still occurring and when it does, it is devastating to the passenger as these devices are more than equipment – they are extensions of their body and essential to their independence,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said.
“We acknowledge that we are not where we want to be on this as an industry, therefore we want to do something about it on a global level, not through setting up a talking shop, but by bringing the key groups together to take practical action. Uniquely, the Mobility Aids Action Group will involve the full range of stakeholders impacted by this issue, including accessibility organisations (representing travellers with disabilities), airlines, ground service providers, airports and mobility aids manufacturers.
“This is the beginning of a new day where the accessibility community has a seat at the table,” Walshe added.
Only last week, Expedia flagged its intention to tackle a number of important social issues as part of its Open World initiative, with improving the plight of travellers with disabilities forming one of the major policy agendas. Improvements already made to its site include accessibility filters to list options like elevators, service animal accommodations, roll-in showers, as well as sign-language staff availability, with further investment flagged moving forward.
“Unfortunately, historic and social barriers still too often limit equitable and accessible travel. Demand is increasing as consumers are seeking more inclusive travel offerings when searching and booking. Expedia Group is increasing its own capabilities to improve the experience of underserved travellers by identifying and helping to lessen gaps,” the company said.
While people with disabilities have been underserviced and, in some cases, mistreated throughout the travel ecosystem for many years, the social and economic windfall that can result from the travel industry enhancing its policies and processes has the potential to be enormous. Here’s to hoping the Aussie travel sector continues to forge ahead and create a boarding pass we can all access, and do as Lenny Kravitz famously declared, fly away.