Disabled but not deterred: How I travel when the industry doesn’t want me to
“What’s the matter, can’t you see or something?” barks the security guard at Heathrow Airport. A small part of me dies with embarrassment.
As a solo, visually impaired traveler, Heathrow is one of the worst places on earth to figure out where I am and more importantly, where I need to be.
Departure gates and times are displayed on a screen hung from the ceiling which, if your eyesight is anything less than perfect, requires an enormous amount of squinting, peering and standing on tiptoes to read.
Learning where I needed to be in order to catch my flight to Los Angeles from these screens was impossible.
Having the temerity to ask a po-faced security guard for information results in the above retort.
I reply that yes, I really am visually impaired; he grimaces, grabs my arm and escorts me to the gate I need.
In fact, I didn’t need his arm for support and, while seething on the flight over the Atlantic later that night I also think, do I and others like me really need this kind of treatment?
Vacations are 'a risk'
“It would be nice if the travel industry courted disabled travelers, even just a little,” says Damon Rose, a radio producer based in London who has been blind since the age of 11.
“For many disabled people, a holiday is a big ticket item -- it’s not something they’re going to take a risk on if they think the experience of being in a new place, or getting there, isn’t going to be accessible.”
Recent years have seen changes in attitude and in the amount of facilities available -- at least in some places.
The number of British disabled people using the UK rail network has tripled in the last 15 years, with more than 3.5 million journeys being taken each year.
Andy Wright, the managing director of Accessible Travel and Leisure, a tour operator specializing in booking vacations for holiday-makers with disabilities, and a wheelchair user himself, believes a change in attitude is discernible.
“I’ve seen some pretty big changes in the last decade or so," says Wright. "When I go to very big tourist destinations like Majorca or Lanzarote I’m amazed at how many fully accessible beaches there are now with proper decking, beach wheelchairs and palettes for equipment to be taken onto the sand.
“Even on planes now there are changes. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines both have sliding partitions on the walls of the toilets on some of their planes. This means double the amount of room can be created if a person in a wheelchair needs to use it.”
However, disabled Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson -- a regular traveler who has won 16 medals in a glittering career as a wheelchair racer -- believes these innovations are drops in the ocean compared with the changes in attitude that need to take place.
“As a disabled person traveling you always have an element of fear, feeling very uncomfortable, of panic, of just wondering if you are going to get off," she says.
Stranded on a commuter train recently when the promise of a member of staff to assist her fell through, Tanni ended up in particular difficulty.
"I ended up having to get out of my wheelchair, sit on the floor, which is not a terribly pleasant place to sit, throw my chair off the train and then crawl off," she recalls.
Particular opprobrium has been aimed at European low cost airline Ryanair, which, in 2004, when told that they legally couldn’t charge disabled passengers extra for use of wheelchairs, decided to clamp a 10 percent wheelchair levy onto the price of every single ticket sold to disabled or non-disabled travelers.
“It’s a very clear sign that this airline simply do not want disabled passengers on their planes and it creates a rather toxic amount of bad feeling from able-bodied people toward people with disabilities,” says Andy Wright.
Wanted: Pragmatism, not legislation
So how can the industry make travelers with disabilities comfortable and welcome?
Andy Wright believes changes in law won’t help.
“I really don’t believe that more and more legislation is the answer," he says. "The more stringent the laws become the more hotels and resorts and such are just going to throw their hands up and say they can’t comply.
“What’s needed is a shift so that the really big tour operators see the commercial value in getting disabled travelers on board. Travelers with disabilities tend to be loyal, repeat bookers -- once they find somewhere that fits their needs they want to return.
“Plus they will often be traveling with families who are all able bodied. Making one room accessible in a hotel can lead to four or five other people booking who don’t need the extra requirements.”
Big-name brands may be a little tardy on the uptake, but it's a different story online.
Numerous apps offer help to disabled travelers in what are, as Damon Rose says, “mundane yet vital” ways.
“One new app that I love can locate a toilet for my assistance dog in major airports,” he tells me. “It’s things like this that are just so simple and can turn a chore into a holiday.
“A few more innovations like this and I don’t think there’s going to be much stopping disabled people from having the same holiday experience as able-bodied people.”
And as long as my none-too-friendly Heathrow security buddy gets in on the act with some retraining, it still feels possible to realistically look forward to a time when a holiday for me can feel sedate rather than stressful.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rob Crossan.