It’s not just a question of law and ethics – ignore the needs of disabled travellers and you’ll miss a business opportunity too. Jackie David reports
With EU regulations on accessible air travel in the offing, travel agents and operators will soon have no choice but to push disability further up their agendas.
But legal obligations and moral imperatives are not the only reasons why the industry should focus on this part of the market: not to do so would be to miss a major business opportunity.
There are around 10 million disabled people in the UK with a combined spending power of £50 billion, and that’s not including the one in six Brits aged over 65 who may have physical impairments.
“The over-65s traditionally take an additional 10 holidays a year, potentially spending six weeks or more of the year travelling,” said Accessible Travel managing director Andy Wright. “And we know at least 2.5 million disabled people travel regularly, but that many more feel unable to do so because of a lack of facilities.”
According to a recent survey by Accessible Travel, the main areas of concern for the 400-plus disabled people who responded were:
- Lack of confidence in receiving accurate, verified information from travel agents or the internet
- Lack of confidence with the airlines and airport facilities
- Lack of confidence in the suitability of vehicles for transfers from the airport to resort
- Lack of confidence in hotels having and providing suitable accessible accommodation
Legislation may have raised awareness of disability issues in the industry but so far it seems agents and operators have failed to come up with an adequate response, said Wright.
“There are still many travel agencies that are inaccessible to wheelchair users, and even if the staff are trained to converse professionally with a disabled holidaymaker, they still do not have a product that is independently authenticated and tailored to specifically meet the needs of disabled travellers – that is, they have nothing to sell.”
One of the reasons agents may be reluctant to cater for the disabled sector is perception. ABTA head of business and consumer affairs Keith Richards said: “Disability tends to conjure up images of guide dogs and wheelchairs when in fact that is very much in the minority. There are just as many people who need a bit of added assistance when faced with unfamiliar surroundings and new environments.
“Most hurdles are not physical ones; they can be overcome with good human interaction. Human beings are the best auxiliary tool for people with disabilities.”
Regardless of the extent of the impairment of a potential customer, there are simple steps agents can take to help them choose the right holiday. “You can do things such as photocopy information and enlarge it – as suggested by the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s See it Right guidelines, which point out that 80% of visually impaired people can read print if it is 14 point type or larger, which, of course, most brochures are not,” said Richards.
Equipment is also available to help. Royal National Institute for the Deaf head of campaigns Emma Harrison said just booking a holiday can be a real challenge for the millions of deaf or hard of hearing people in the UK who cannot use a normal telephone.
“We would suggest operators install an induction loop or infrared system to help hearing aid users. Many organisations are not aware of induction loops, let alone have one installed, and those that do often do not publicise it or switch it on, and staff often don’t know how to operate them.”
Not surprisingly, call centres can be particularly problematic. “Automated telephones are often used and these are inappropriate for people with hearing loss who need to hear clear speech and often need information to be repeated,” said Harrison.
“Automated systems are also very difficult for deaf people who use Typetalk – the national telephone relay service – as information is given too fast to be able to relay to the deaf person.
“In cases where an automated system is used, alternative provisions must be made for deaf and hard of hearing people, such as text message, fax or email,”
There is no shortage of advice out there from disability organisations such as the RNIB for agents and operators who want to meet – and exceed – their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act.
ABTA has a wealth of information on its website for agents and consumers, including a checklist that encourages frontline staff and customers to ask each other the right questions.
With the second part of a major EU regulation – 1107/2006 Rights of Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility When Travelling by Air – coming into force in July, agents will have to bite the bullet: it requires all consumer-facing staff to receive disability awareness and disability equality training.
The EU’s focus on air travel is long overdue. For Wright, airlines are without a doubt the worst component when constructing a holiday to meet disabled passengers’ needs. “We have sourced suitable accommodation and transport abroad and have trained resort representatives to meet the needs of our disabled passengers.
“However, airlines – especially as they are exempt from the disability discrimination act – are a law unto themselves. Embarkation, disembarkation, appropriate seating and inaccessible toilets are some of the main issues raised in letters of complaint.”
Travel is not the only obstacle for disabled holidaymakers, said Diana Morgan, editor of Step Forward – the journal of the Limbless Association. “One part of the chain that can spoil – if not ruin a holiday – is that even if a customer conducts thorough research and works with a travel agent to ensure all routes are shored up, they can still come unstuck if the holiday rep abroad is not fully clued up on mobility access and wheelchair requirements. Training of overseas reps at the resorts is vital,” she said.
One way to avoid this is to follow Wright’s policy and check out the destination yourself. “We visit, verify and photograph every hotel, villa and apartment that we feature. In short, if we have not seen it, we do not sell it,” he said.
Doing your homework and offering a sterling service to disabled customers can really pay off, as Richards at ABTA points out. “People who have disabilities often travel with others – this is access to a wider market,” said Richards.
“When you do offer them a fantastic experience, you find they are extremely loyal and will bring back business time and time again – and that applies to high-street agents, operators and online travel providers.”
The travel industry, like so many other sectors, has a long way to go in providing a first rate service to the disabled population, but it is making inroads. Simply familiarising themselves with the needs of such clients will take agents a step closer to meeting them– providing they keep an open mind.
“The important thing is getting over the tendency to make assumptions – never just presume what disabled customers can and can’t do. You’ll almost certainly be wrong.”