All Access: Better Accessibility When Travelling

The wonderlust doesn’t always end when mobility concerns set in. Here, differently abled strategies to keep ticking off that bucket list.

The cobblestones of Lisbon, the castle of Prague, the ruins of Rome – for most tourists, they’re a dream come true. For the traveller with reduced mobility, they can be a nightmare. The big wide wonderful world is not always a welcoming place for the differently abled who yearn to experience its glories, curiosities and cuisines.

About 15 per cent of the Canadian population has a disability, and 25 per cent of those have a mobility problem. Hearing, sight and cognitive impairment account for the rest. For people 65 and over, the percentage with special needs rises to more than 40 per cent.

“I always wanted to go to France,” says Nancy Gilmore, wistfully. “And Italy. I looked into Greece, but it seems impossible.”

The 59-year-old Edmontonian uses a wheelchair but can walk short distances with a cane. An auto accident 20 years ago left her with an artificial knee and hip, with pins in her foot and with a mild brain injury.

Her wanderlust, however, is unimpaired. With the help of her husband, Hugh McAlary, and with online research, Gilmore has travelled in North America and spends a couple of weeks every winter in Hawaii.

“We rent a condo, and through websites like VRBO.com [Vacation Rentals by Owner], I make sure they have exactly what I need: a walk-in shower, a pool that I can walk into that doesn’t have steps.”

But Europe beckons. What is the one thing that could make a difference in Gilmore’s travel life?

She doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Information,” she declares. “Just getting reliable information about hotels, transportation, special services, the places you’re going to be seeing, how to get around them. In other words, about everything.”

Unsurprisingly, information about everything a traveller with special needs might encounter – and using social media to make that information available – was the hot topic at the first international Destinations for All summit, convened in 2014 in Montreal by what is now known as Kéroul (“Quebec Rolls”) and the Quebec Department of Tourism.

And they weren’t kidding about mandating destinations for all. Everything was up for discussion, from castles and Machu Picchu to ski resorts and boating marinas. (And, yes, visiting Machu Picchu, skiing and boating are all possible for people in wheelchairs and with reduced mobility.)

Accessibility, said Belgian hotel executive Vincent Snoek, “begins in the parking lot, continues through the entrance and extends to every area.”

It also includes training staff. If a towel is placed on a rack two meters high, for example, it’s impossible for a person in a wheelchair to reach it. Gilmore once booked a wheelchair-accessible room at a Toronto hotel, only to find on her arrival that it was situated in a separate building reached by a steep pathway right up to the doors wide enough for her wheelchair.

“But how the heck was I supposed to open the doors and keep myself from rolling down the pathway?” she says.

The main barriers to destinations for all, said conference participants, include lack of adapted supply  and of information that is accurate, uncomplicated and complete. One of the biggest obstacles is attitude, they agreed.

Snoek said pointedly, “People ask, ‘Why do you want disabled people as guests?'”

His response: “Why do we want healthy people as guests?”

Adapting tourism to accommodate an aging population and expanded market is certainly profit-driven, but there is also an increasing sense of social responsibility.

Toronto’s Chelsea Hotel was the first in Canada to adopt Closing the Gap, an accessibility program designed to enhance the hospitality experience for persons with disabilities. The hotel offers a Guest Accessibility Package for physically disabled guests with everything they need to know about the hotel, its amenities and surroundings. It also offers an Autism Comfort Package. And, tourism folks have taken notice. In November 2016, the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) awarded the Chelsea Hotel the Tourism Industry Awards of Excellence – Accessible Tourism. The award highlights an outstanding accessible business that complies with Ontario Accessibility standards, and is recognized by employees and customers as a leader in providing inclusive experiences for tourists.

Quebec’s Accessible Road initiative (theaccessibleroad.com) developed by Kéroul suggests journeys throughout the province, including a weeklong nature tour with nights in a yurt, a Huttopia tent and a waterfront condo.

In Europe, London’s famed Victoria and Albert Museum is fully wheelchair-accessible and includes replica objects that can be touched by people who can’t see them.

The city of Paris publishes a booklet and website guide (parisinfo.com) for disabled visitors, including information about electric scooters available for rent by people with reduced mobility, a fleet of taxis adapted to people in wheelchairs and fully accessible bus and tram lines.

For borderless info, websites similar to TripAdvisor but with reviews by people with disabilities, such as euansguide.com, are increasing.

For instance, Gilmore and her husband had a wonderful weekend in Manhattan based on the advice found on the site gimponthego.com.

Edward Manning, a sustainable tourism consultant, and his wife, Margo, who uses a wheelchair, are developing a global information system for accessibility. It will go “beyond classifications and symbols and provide facts to people who can then decide about their capabilities that day: ‘Can I go there? Can I do that?’ ” said Edward, 69, president of Tourisk, an Ottawa-based consulting firm that fosters sustainable tourism.

Facts that can help answer those questions include the number of stairs, the angle of the incline, the width of doorways, the size of washrooms and the walking distance.

But despite the worthwhile goal of destinations for all, some tourist sites will likely remain inaccessible.

“Castles were not designed to be accessible,” said Heather Smith, equality specialist of England’s National Trust. Nor, she might have added, are ruins. Sometimes, she said, “conservation of heritage blocks access. The balance is a challenge.”

She cited the difficulty of putting elevators in some historical buildings and how the vibrations may be destructive. Technology, however, can come to the rescue with interactive videos revealing everything in areas that are inaccessible.

But there are also grand success stories of adapted attractions. Gilmore will be delighted to learn that Greece – or at least parts of it – is indeed accessible. The historic centre of Athens and the Acropolis Museum – the third most popular museum in the world, with 1.3 million visitors annually – have been made accessible to people with disabilities since the Paralympics in 2004.

The removal of roads, barriers and cobblestones and the creation of a pedestrian route make it possible for people with wheelchairs and mobility issues as well as families with strollers, to experience modern and ancient Greece.

In the end, it’s not just accessibility that matters; it’s accessibility of accurate information.