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Accessible Travel Update:
We’ve Come a Long Way Baby!

In the 15-plus years that I’ve been covering accessible travel, I’ve seen a lot changes. In fact, I still remember the reaction of my travel writer colleagues when I boldly announced that I was leaving mainstream publishing to write about accessible travel. Most people thought I was having some type of premature mid-life crisis. Information was difficult to find back then too, as access wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. But I was doing what I wanted to do, so I was happy.

Fast forward to 2008, and I’m now the golden child. With the ageing of the Baby Boomers, today there’s a huge demand for accessible travel news and information; and after four books, over 40 issues of Emerging Horizons and more articles that I can even count, I’m the go-to expert on the subject. As a result, I’m inundated with e-mails from readers asking for access information and from public relations folks touting the accessibility of the hotels, attractions and destinations they represent. And nobody thinks I’m crazy anymore – at least not as far as my career choice is concerned.

Did I foresee this playing out so successfully? Hardly. I was just lucky. The ageing of our population coupled with a changing attitude about disability have fueled tremendous advances in accessible tourism. I just happened to be along for the ride. In short, the world is a much more accessible place than it was just 15 years ago.

In the Air

Over the years, the greatest access advances have occurred in the air travel arena. For example, just this year a groundbreaking decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency on the “one-person one-fare” issue drastically changed the face of air travel for many disabled Canadians. Set to go into effect next year, the new law allows “people with severe disabilities” to travel with an attendant at no extra charge, on domestic airlines operating flights within Canada.

Of course, there are some limitations. The attendant must be required for the in-flight personal care or safety of the passenger; and it doesn’t apply to people who prefer to travel with a companion or to those folks who only require attendant care at their destination. Still, it will make a big difference to a lot of travelers. And since the decision was recently upheld on appeal, it looks like it’s a done deal.

Down in the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) also recently underwent some major changes. For starters it extends coverage of the ACAA to all flights arriving or departing the US, including those operated by foreign carriers. It also requires airlines to allow the onboard-use use of all FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators, ventilators, respirators and CPAP machines. Additionally it requires US airlines that maintain inaccessible websites to also make their web-only specials available by phone to disabled passengers. These new provisions go into effect in May 2009.

The European Union has also been busy strengthening their air travel rules, with the European Union Passengers with Reduced Mobility (EU PRM) regulations, set to go into full effect on July 26, 2008. These regulations prohibit EU-based airlines, travel agents or tour operators from refusing service or denying boarding to disabled passengers. Additionally, they prohibit EU airlines from charging for the transport of wheelchairs or service animals; or for wheelchair assistance in airports.

Even aircraft design has improved as far as access is concerned. Take Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, for example. Although it’s still in the design and production stages, the finished product is slated to have a truly accessible on-board lavatory, which is something sorely lacking on most long haul aircraft. This will especially benefit folks who need assistance in the lavatory, as there’s simple not room for two people in the current incarnation of accessible on-board lavatories. Air Canada plans to add 37 Dreamliners to their fleet, with delivery scheduled to begin in 2012.

Of course there are still some rough spots in air travel, but the biggest problems seem to occur outside of North America and Europe. For example, Nationwide Airlines (a domestic South African carrier) charges passengers for airport wheelchair assistance; while Thai Airways, AirAsia, South African Airways and Regional Express (an Australian carrier) have all denied boarding to unaccompanied wheelchair-users.

The Information Age

Sometimes major events, like the Olympics, can be the impetus for access improvements. And because the Paralympics closely follow the Olympics, the host city also has to be able to accommodate a large contingent of disabled visitors. So if a venue wants to host the games, they have to make access one of their top considerations in the Olympic bid process. And the good news is, access improvements in Olympic host cities generally extend well beyond the sports venues; to include access upgrades to hotels, restaurants and even local transportation.

And with the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic alpine events slated for Whistler, that BC resort city has enthusiastically jumped on the access bandwagon. In fact, Whistler is one of 10 communities participating in Measuring Up; an initiative of 2010 Legacies Now, which helps cities determine how to make their communities more accessible and inclusive. And that improved accessibility will remain, long after the Paralympic torch moves on.

Even private citizens are gearing up for the Paralympics, as evidenced by Hugh Tollett’s excellent Whistler for the Disabled website. Although Hugh’s site isn’t officially affiliated with the games, it provides updated and accurate access information about Whistler.

And Hugh’s not alone out there in cyberspace. With the evolution of the internet, today it’s easy to find access information on-line. In 2007 Keroul published an on-line version of AccessiB - The Open Road, which presents access information on the province of Quebec; and this year the Open Doors Organization released Easy Access Chicago, the first online access guide to Chicago.

And speaking from personal experience, I’ve seen on-line access resources grow exponentially over the years. Ten years ago the Emerging Horizons website had just a handful of links to websites with useful access information, while today it includes over 800. And it just keeps growing, as nearly every day I stumble onto a new access resource.

Getting Around on the Ground

Looking at the big picture, ground transportation is still the biggest roadblock to accessible travel; but even that’s improved markedly over the past 15 years. In fact, the first thing I saw when I landed in Belfast last month was an accessible taxi. That’s a very good sign.

And that’s not such an uncommon site these days, as many major cities including Toronto, Paris and Buenos Aires have some type of accessible taxi service. In the US you can find ramp-equipped taxis in Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Houston and New York. And the famous black cabs that cruise the streets of London are now all required to be accessible, either with a portable ramp or a fold-down dickie transfer seat. Granted, it’s not a seamless worldwide network, but it’s growing.

Whenever I become disheartened about the lack of accessible ground transportation, I remember what my friend Wes says about his own travel experience. “Twenty years ago, the only way I could get to the airport was by an ambulance,” he reminds me. “Today all I have to do is call Super Shuttle.”

And although things are improving, there’s still a general lack of accessible infrastructure in most third world countries. But that’s not to say you should cross them off your wish list. If you love adventure and are willing to accept a little physical help, like being carried up stairs or lifted into a taxi, then go for it. What some places lack in physical access they make up for in a very welcoming attitude. In short, today if you want to do it – from a Toronto theater excursion to an African safari -- it is possible. And that’s a huge, and very positive change, from 15 years ago.

Resources

Canadian Transportation Agency
www.cta.gc.ca

Revised Air Carrier Access Act
www.regulations.gov
search for DOT-OST-2004-19482

European Union PRM Regulations
http://ec.europa.eu/transport/air_portal/passenger_rights/prm/

Whistler for the Disabled
www.whistlerforthedisabled.com

Keroul
www.keroul.qc.ca

Easy Access Chicago
www.EasyAccessChicago.org

Emerging Horizons
www.EmergingHorizons.com

Candy Harrington has covered accessible travel exclusively for the past 15 years. She’s the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Her newest title, 101 Accessible Vacations; Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers hit bookstores late last year. Candy blogs regularly about accessible travel issues at www.BarrierFreeTravels.com