Where do I even begin to describe us? Society likes to lump us together as “people with disabilities” or “wheelchair users,” and while we do have those commonalities, each one of us has a different lifestyle and different needs. That being said, one thing that binds those of us with the wanderlust gene together is our love of and intense desire to travel. We are the largest minority in the world with incredible spending power; yet, the travel industry doesn’t pay as much attention to us as it should. Here are some things I think the travel, tourism, and hospitality sectors should know about wheelchair users – especially those of us who travel.
1. We just want to see and experience the same things as everyone else. Look, we get it. None of us is going to climb to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or hike the Appalachian Trail. But we’ve seen the beautiful pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon, and Egyptian pyramids, and we want to visit them, too. Thanks to many advances in wheelchair accessibility around the world, we can see an increasing number of sights from Singapore to Spain. However, it often takes a lot of work for us to achieve this level of travel equality. It’s nice to skip the 2-hour line at St Peter’s Basilica, but taking the private elevator with an escort is the only way we can get in. We don’t ask for or need special/VIP treatment. We just want to see the same things everyone else does when we travel.
2. We are not a one-size-fits-all population. No two wheelchair users are alike, even if they both have the exact same injury or medical condition. We have different needs when it comes to hotel room beds, showers, toilets, eating, and transportation. Yet, the travel industry hedges its bets financially and designs these things by speculating about what the majority of us can use, rather than making an effort to serve a variety of needs when it’s feasible. For example, the latest trend in US hotel rooms is high beds. The furniture in wheelchair accessible rooms is the same as all other rooms, and instead of placing height-adjustable beds in these rooms, we’re left to our own devices to figure out how to sleep. Restaurants are getting rid of straws for environmental reasons without realizing some people have disabilities that requires the use of a straw to drink. We don’t expect businesses to spend a fortune to cater to our specific needs, but we would love some compassion and a desire to help meet them when possible.
If you need help pulling yourself up in bed or repositioning, this is the nylon “ladder” strap I use (and it’s perfect for travel): Stander BedCaddie – Sit-Up In Bed Support Assist Handle with Adjustable Nylon Strap + Three Ergonomic Hand Grips
3. We use wheelchairs and mobility aids for very different reasons. Baby boomers! The largest and fastest growing population in the world, and every year they’re accounting for a larger proportion of travelers who use wheelchairs. I feel like people assume most wheelchair users have either a disease or a spinal cord injury, but the truth is that most wheelies and walker/cane users these days are seniors. And not all people who use a mobility aid need it permanently, as a broken leg, surgery, or recovery from medical treatment can lead to temporary use of a chair – as well as accessible accommodations.
Thanks to my awesome electric scooter (which I use due to having MS), I’m able to safely roll around destinations all over the world. Find out if it’s a good fit for you, too! Pride Mobility Go-Go Ultra X 3-Wheel Travel Scooter
4. We have travel money and aren’t afraid to spend it. Why do so many people think everyone in a wheelchair is on government disability assistance and poor? This isn’t to say that many people with disabilities aren’t in tough financial situations. One only has to read news stories of governments slashing disability assistance and search GoFundMe campaigns for people desperate to purchase a wheelchair accessible van. But plenty of us (see baby boomer reference above) have plenty of disposable income to spend on travel – to the tune of $17.3 billion annually. In the United Kingdom, they call this incredible spending power the “purple pound,” and it is going largely ignored by the travel industry. This isn’t to say accessibility in the sector isn’t improving, because it is. But when was the last time you saw a commercial for a resort or cruise line or tourist destination that had someone in a wheelchair featured prominently? Travel industry, you are missing out.
5. We’re the most loyal customers you’ll ever have. When we come across a hotel or restaurant or cruise line that meets our needs for accessibility, we will use them over and over again. This is a bit different than able-bodied customer loyalty. If a “regular” customer gets annoyed by the slightest little thing, it’s much easier for them to switch to a different hotel or place to eat. If I find a hotel where I can sleep and bathe safely and comfortably, I will stay at that exact hotel every time I visit because I know what I’m getting. I will cruise on Celebrity repeatedly (when I can afford it) because their attention to accessibility is second to none. And fix a problem for me with a smile and enthusiasm? I’m yours for life.
6. We’ll spend more for assured accessibility. To piggyback off of #4 and #5, if we know that our accessibility needs will be taken care of, we’re willing to pay more for a hotel room or cruise or tour. I conducted an un-scientific poll of several hundred wheelchair travelers through my social media pages, and 98 percent of them said they would pay at least 20 percent more for an accommodation if the wheelchair accessibility was guaranteed, compared to a cheaper accommodation where accessibility (and ADA compliance in the US) was advertised, but not truly known until the guest’s arrival. Accessible shore excursions are notoriously (and sometimes questionably) expensive, but we choose them anyway over cheaper tours offered by cruise lines that claim to be wheelchair friendly. Our peace of mind and reduced travel anxiety is worth a lot of money if you can give that to us.
7. Build it and we will come. People often ask me how I choose my destinations. Simple, I tell them. If it’s accessible, I’ll go. So many business owners refuse to install ramps or spend any money to make their businesses more wheelchair friendly because they say they never see wheelchair users in the area or never get asked for access. Do businesses in the travel industry ever think, if we install more ramps and make more places wheelchair friendly, maybe more wheelchair users will visit? The second I learn about a new wheelchair accessible tour operator in a place I never thought I could visit, I’m on Skyscanner searching for flights and sending email inquiries. With more phone apps coming out that utilize crowdsourcing for the accessibility of various establishments, the travel industry needs to invest in marketing to the “purple pound” by simply making a place more accessible.
8. We appreciate sincere effort, and we’ll tell the world about it. To continue the theme of #7, never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth within the wheelchair community. If a company or establishment provides great accessibility and even greater service, we’re going to write reviews and post about it all over social media. Likewise, if we’re deceived about the accessibility of an accommodation or treated in a subhuman fashion (airlines, we’re looking at you) we’re not only going to take to the Internet; we’ll go to the media. On the bright side, you might just be amazed at the business you’ll bring in if you can get just one accessible travel blogger (like yours truly) to write positive things about your attention to wheelchair accessibility.
9. We’re scared, frustrated, angry…and exhausted. Last year I wrote an entire blog post about how wheelchair users could overcome their fear of traveling. It makes me so sad that many wheelchair users won’t travel at all because they’re too afraid of things like equipment damage by airlines, or not being able to sleep safely or use the toilet. Some wheelchair users have quit traveling altogether because of one too many negative travel experiences. Dealing with the effort of just trying to travel like everyone else can be utterly exhausting. Please, if you can make any of it easy for us – or even pleasant – we’ll be yours for life (see #5).
10. We have more courage than you can imagine. I don’t remember who first said it, but courage isn’t the lack of fear. It’s taking action in spite of our fears. I usually travel alone with my electric scooter, and for that people have called me brave. I know lots of wheelchair users who do the same, and the same moniker is given to able-bodied women who travel alone. Maybe it’s projection of their own fears, but maybe not. I’m scared of something every time I travel (usually flying). Every time a wheelchair user steps outside of their home, they are dealing with some kind of fear, regardless of whether they’re going to China or the grocery store down the street. We’re not brave simply because we travel. We’re brave because many times we know what challenges might be waiting for us, and we choose to face them anyway. Able-bodied travelers don’t have to worry about half the things we do, but we go anyway. If that doesn’t demonstrate our love of travel and commitment to living a full life, I don’t know what does.
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