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Planning Inclusive Meetings:
The State of Accessibility Around the World

Planning inclusive meetings – those that are accessible to people with physical disabilities – just makes sense these days. According the US Census Bureau, 25 million people over the age of 15 have difficulty walking a quarter-mile or climbing 10 stairs, while 2.2 million people use a wheelchair and another 6.4 million people need a cane, crutches or a walker to get around. Those figures don’t even take into account people who have a temporary disability like a broken leg or those that use a wheelchair, cane or walker while recovering from surgery.

It’s just good business to make your meetings and events accessible to everyone; as you never know who may require access. It could even be the CEO, a keynote speaker or another VIP. It should be noted though, that for the purposes of this article, we’re not talking about meetings and events designed solely for a group of disabled people; as planning that type of a specialized event goes well beyond the scope of most meeting planners.

In the end, the key to planning a more inclusive meeting lies in destination selection, as some areas of the world are just more accessible than others. Additionally, there are pockets of accessibility even in the largely inaccessible regions of the world. With that in mind, here’s a look at what the world has to offer in terms of physical accessibility.

US & Canada

Besides sharing a common boarder, the US and Canada also have some similarities in accessibility. Both countries have civil rights legislation as well as regulations governing access aboard airlines. The former helps with access to public venues while the later assures that regional airlines are accessible.

Generally speaking, you will find better access in metropolitan areas than in rural locales in both countries. The bigger cities have accessible taxi cabs, buses and even metro trains; while the smaller towns usually rely on a private paratransit provider. The major cities boast modern convention centers with barrier-free access; and curb-cuts and wide sidewalks are the norm in metropolitan areas.

Additionally the availability of access information is growing throughout the region. Laurel Van Horn, research director with Open Doors Organization stresses the importance of this access resource. “Even if an access guide isn’t researched by an independent source, it still provides meeting planners some idea of where to start digging for further information,“ she emphasizes. “Currently San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago and Palm Springs have print access guides; while Access Guide Canada is available on-line,” she adds.

Although access is generally good throughout the region, there are some notable differences between the two countries. The Americans with Disabilities Act Access Guidelines (ADAAG) regulates access at most US hotels, conference centers and on public transportation. Under the regulations, hotels with over 50 rooms are required to have accessible guest rooms with a roll-in shower; while smaller hotels are only required to have accessible guest rooms with a tub/shower combination and grab bars. Since there are two types of accessible rooms, guests need to specify their access needs.

On the other side of the border, roll-in showers are in short supply in Canada. And although disability-based discrimination is prohibited in the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1976-77, there are no national access regulations for hotels. In order to address this oversight, the Hotel Association of Alberta founded Access Canada, a voluntarily access rating program. Hotels that meet the required access standards can display the Access Canada logo; however the system is not widely used throughout the country, and most participating properties are located in Alberta and Victoria.

The good news is, the 2010 Olympics are expected to fuel improvements in the infrastructure as well boost the number of wheelchair-accessible guest rooms in Vancouver and Whistler. This is common for any Olympic and Paralympic city, however since the mayor of Vancouver is a quadriplegic, it’s expected to have an even greater impact on the region. So look for access improvements throughout British Columbia in the near future.

And although the US and Canadian accessibility regulations for air travel are strikingly similar; the Canadians recently made a very progressive amendment to their law. Beginning in January 2009, the “one-person one-fare” decision is set to go into effect. This new law allows “people with severe disabilities” to travel with an attendant at no extra charge, on domestic airlines operating flights within Canada. It’s believed that this new regulation will make regional air travel even more accessible.

Change is on the forefront in the US too, as updated access regulations are in the works. The Department of Justice (DOJ) released proposed changes to the ADAAG in July 2008; however they were met with strenuous objections from the lodging industry. In fact the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) submitted a 91-page document to the DOJ, objecting to what they described as “dramatic and far reaching changes” to the ADAAG. It’s the AHLA’s contention that the DOJ “has significantly underestimated how much this proposal will cost the industry and all Americans.” Although this issue won’t be solved overnight, it’s one to keep an eye on; as if the proposed regulations are adopted as drafted, it will significantly improve access at older US hotels.

Western Europe

Western Europe also gets high marks for access and even higher marks for the fact that regional tourism providers and disability organizations are working together to actively promote it. Unlike the AHLA, they view increased accessibility as a marketing edge rather than a financial burden.

For example, the European Network of Accessible Tourism (ENAT) actively works to break down access barriers in the tourism industry throughout the European Union (EU). Composed of regional tourist boards like Visit Britain and the Athens Ministry of Tourism, as well as disability organizations such as Tourism for Alla, ENAT lobbies for the removal of architectural barriers and works to improve access to public transportation. And on the customer service side of things, the organization also encourages the adoption of higher standards of service for disabled customers.

According to ENAT President, Lillian Muller, accessible tourism is no longer a niche market, as the disabled and elderly population is growing at a rapid pace. With that in mind, tourism providers are encouraged to look at providing accessible services as an opportunity rather than an obligation. It’s a different mindset from that of the AHLA; and one that has fueled access improvements throughout the EU.

Needless to say, access is good throughout the region, with most countries having some sort of civil rights legislation and access regulations or guidelines. As with other areas of the world, you’ll find the best access in the large cities, with most having accessible bus and rail systems along with ramped or lift-equipped taxis. The major convention centers feature ramped access and although some of the historic areas of the region have cobblestone streets and high curbs, the modern areas have wide sidewalks and curb-cuts.

Continental showers – those that don’t have a shower curtain or lip, but just a drain in the middle of the bathroom – are common throughout the region. Although they weren’t originally developed as an access feature, they are ideal for people who cannot step into a tub or shower enclosure. It should be noted however, that wheelchair-users should ask for an adapted room, as it will also contain grab bars and wide doors. Additionally, many small properties lack elevators, or have elevators that are too small for standard wheelchairs, so wheelchair-users should try an secure a ground floor guest room whenever possible.

Regional air travel got an access upgrade this past July, when the European Union Passengers with Reduced Mobility (EU PRM) regulations went into full effect. These regulations prohibit EU-based airlines from denying passage to disabled travelers, or for charging for accessible services such as carrying wheelchairs in the baggage compartment. Additionally, it requires the airport authority to provide wheelchair assistance to disabled passengers.

England, is a prime example of the access found throughout the region. The Disability Discrimination Act regulates access to hotels, airports and entertainment venues as well as most ground transportation. Additionally, the National Accessible Scheme provides a voluntary access rating system for lodgings. Operated much like the Access Canada program, properties are inspected and then given an access rating, which can then be displayed in guide books and collateral materials.

Most business class hotels have adapted guest rooms and access to their meeting facilities; while all the major conference centers boast wheelchair access. Curb-cuts are commonplace throughout the country, although in some rural locales there are no sidewalks. Accessible transportation is good in the major cities like London, where it’s required that all black cabs have a portable ramp or a fold-down dickie seat. And although the famous double decker buses are not accessible, most have been replaced by accessible single level “bendy buses”.

And with the Olympics and Paralympics coming to London in 2012, access is expected to increase. Visit London already boasts an on-line access guide and plans are in the works to make more Tube stations accessible. Additionally, the Olympic Delivery Authority plans to beef up the accessibility in regional transport so everyone can attend the Games.

Mexico & the Caribbean

Even though Mexico and the Caribbean is a very idyllic region to hold a conference or meeting, access is very limited there. Most of the countries have some type of human rights legislation; however with limited resources, the priority lies with providing accessible services to residents rather than tourists. That said, things are improving, and they a far cry from what they were just 10 years ago.

Still most areas have narrow sidewalks, high curbs and no curb-cuts. Additionally it’s not uncommon to find one or two steps up into many shops and restaurants. Many of the older hotels have narrow doorways, even in their accessible guest rooms.

“Lack of accessible transportation remains a major barrier except in cruise ports where a few tour companies now have adapted vehicles,” says Laurel Van Horn. Some countries don’t even have accessible transportation for residents, as these vehicles are expensive to maintain. “Another barrier to access in the Caribbean can be the lack of jetways or lifts at airports,” Laurel notes. Additionally, some regional air carriers have denied passage to disabled passengers.

Still, Laurel is optimistic and is quick to point out a few accessible destinations in Mexico. “Mexico has come a long way in terms of disability access, especially in popular resort destinations”, says Laurel. “With its modern airport, accessible conference center, wide choice of large hotels with their own meeting spaces and availability of ramp-equipped vehicles, planning an accessible meeting in Cancun or the Riviera Maya is now quite feasible,” she enthusiastically adds.

Another alternative is to take your meeting aboard a cruise ship. Many of the newer cruise ships offer excellent access, with a vide variety of accessible cabins, barrier-free access to all the restaurants, shops and meeting rooms and even accessible pools and spas. Plus you can see several ports without having to change hotels every night. And the sea days between the ports offer an excellent opportunity for meeting time.

“Ensuring that the excursions are accessible will still take some work,” notes Laurel,“ but the ships themselves have become more and more universally accessible.”

Travel agency owner and accessible travel specialist Connie George wholeheartedly agrees. “Itinerary selection is critical when access is a factor,” says Connie. “Some of the Eastern Caribbean ports such as St. Thomas, San Juan and St. Kitts are your best picks, because accessible shore excursions are available there,” she advises. “Still,” she adds, “cruising is the most accessible way to enjoy the Caribbean.”

Asia

Although this region is massive, and technically it includes many sub-regions; the one unifying factory throughout the area is that change is in the air, as far as access is concerned.

That said, currently the region presents some major access obstacles to anyone with a mobility disability. Inclusive tourism expert and destination development consultant, Scott Rains notes that Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have a lesser degree of access than Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong; however gaps in accessible services are still present even in the more accessible countries.

Outside of a few major metropolitan areas, there is also a lack of accessible ground transportation throughout the region. And although some hotels have accessible guest rooms, Scott points out that most have serious design flaws. “Bathroom doorways are typically the narrowest doorways in the hotel room or suite, and they are further rendered useless by a step up into the bathroom,” says Scott. “I’ve even seen these barriers in bathrooms with roll-in showers,” he adds.

Regional air travel doesn’t fare much better as far as accessibility is concerned. Many smaller airports don’t have jetways or lifts. Additionally, some airlines such as Cebu Pacific, Tiger Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways have denied passage to disabled customers.

On the plus side, in places where physical access is limited, personal help is usually enthusiastically offered. This is especially true in the more remote areas of the region.

Japan is often singled out as one of the more accessible countries in the region. Accessible guest rooms, many with wider doors and no step up to the bathroom, are available at some of the newer business class hotels. Additionally, most large hotels have an accessible restroom in the lobby. Since the access features vary greatly, even within Tokyo, it’s important to be specific about access needs. Ramps are commonplace at conference centers, but most are either very steep with no handrails or temporary wooden ramps.

The one thing that sets Japan apart access-wise, is the availability of lift-equipped taxis in Tokyo. This is a rarity in the region, and a much appreciated access feature. Additionally, jetways and lifts are available at Narita airport.

As noted earlier, change is on the horizon in the access department. For example, according to the Beijing Tourism Commission, more than 120 Beijing hotels were remodeled to accommodate disabled guests for the recent Olympic games. The subway system was also upgraded to include at least one accessible entrance at each Beijing station. Says guidebook author Pauline Frommer, after her recent visit to the city, “It's now possible to get to literally twice as many places via the subway as it used to be. It’s really the quickest and most efficient way to travel around the city.” And thanks to recent changes, we can also add “most accessible” to that list.

On the civil rights front, China, India and Thailand have endorsed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; which establishes the right of people with disabilities to participate in sports, leisure activities, and tourism. And while India recently released its first online access guide, Thailand hosted the Second International Conference on Inclusive Tourism in November 2007.

It’s definitely the region to watch. Exciting things with accessibility are happening there; many of which will help make meetings and events even more inclusive in the not so distant future.