Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2011
Don't Overlook A Major Source Of Revenue: Disabled Travelers
By: Michael Bennett

A family of four has enjoyed the vacation of a lifetime. The kids spent days swimming in the hotel pool, having fun at the local amusement park and eating more junk food than their parents would ever allow had they been at home. Like most family vacations the kids wanted the good times to last forever, but school is right around the corner and its time to head home.

So the family packs their bags and heads to the airport. Everything is running smoothly until its time to board when the flight attendants decide they cannot accommodate the family and refuse them boarding.

Why? Because both parents are blind and this particular group of flight attendants felt the parents would be unable to take care of their children who are both fortunate to have their sight. What makes this story so sad is this was the same carrier that delivered them to their vacation destination in the first place. This carrier them allowed this family to check in for their flight home only to be denied boarding at the gate.

According to Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), this lack of awareness are repeated hundreds of times a day not just at airports, but different venues all across the country. The SATH was founded in 1976 as a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise awareness of the needs of all travelers with disabilities. SATH played a key role in crafting the language for the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), the Air Carriers Access Act (regulates airlines handling the disabled) and two key resolutions in the International Air Transport Association (impacts international carriers).

Nayar says, “attitude, awareness and training are the keys” to overcoming the discrimination against the disabled. Even in organizations with stellar records in terms of service to the disabled “all it takes is one person to blow away all the good things” a service provider has worked so hard to accomplish.
This lack of understanding, indifference or both costs corporations millions in potential revenues. For many businesses, especially in our industry with such flimsy profit margins, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Too often our disabled brothers and sisters are given short shrift because people are afraid of the unknown. In other cases Nayar says many refuse to act appropriately for fear of a lawsuit. But Nayar wants to make sure suppliers understand “if you provide the service we (the disabled) will travel. We are not looking for charity. The travel industry needs to know that providing theses services is good business.”

From an economic perspective the clout of the disabled is undeniable. Disabled Americans earn in excess of $1 trillion annually. To put that into perspective, if disabled Americans were an actual country their gross domestic product (GDP) would rank them 15th in the world just behind South Korea and ahead of places like the Netherlands and Argentina. There are an estimated 55 to 60 million disabled Americans, which equates to one out of every five people in this country. And globally there are over 650 million disabled.

Since 2007, disabled Americans have spent over $40 billion at America’s restaurants and have annual disposal income in excess of $220 billion. And as this country’s population ages those numbers are all expected to rise. What’s all that mean for the travel, tourism and hospitality industry here at home? Of the 60 million or so Americans with a disability, 85 percent of them have the economic and physical ability to travel. Taken one step further, most disabled travel with at least one other person increasing potential revenues for a supplier.

A poll taken by Harris a few years back estimated that people with disabilities spent $13.6 billion on 31 million person trips a year. Before continuing, it’s important to understand what being disabled really means. Disability comes in many forms and like the rest of society its not a one size fits all. Typically we think of a disabled person as someone who has lost a limb, is blind, deaf or has a disorder such as cerebral palsy — his or her physical impairments are obvious.

Yet there are others who are productive, functioning members of society who, for a few adjustments in their workspace or in their personal lives are also considered disabled. This might include someone who is slightly hearing or sight impaired, someone with medical dependencies, asthmas sufferers, diabetics or a person with a learning disability that while not severe impedes their ability to function normally. While it’s next to impossible to anticipate the needs of all disabled, especially those without obvious physical impairments, the tourism and hospitality industry is primarily a service industry and we must be ready to accommodate anyone who walks through those doors.

The intangibles mentioned earlier — attitude, awareness, training — bears repeating if an organizations is going to have success in the disabled marketplace. It’s not enough to put wheelchair ramps in hotels or on public transportation, or have specially designed hotel rooms set aside for wheelchair bound guests who might need a grab bar in their bathroom. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires large hotels to accommodate their disabled guest in a variety of ways, like having visual alert devices to help hearing impaired guests recognize things like the phone ringing, alarm clocks, knocks at the door and fire alarms, in addition to Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD) and closed-captioning television sets.

By and large Nayar says the hotel industry has done a good job creating the physical environment to service the physically disabled. But without those intangible assets in place none of the physical environment matters much. Not only is that a waste of investment capital, as the supplier you’ve lost a customer for life. That lost customer bleeds over to your able-bodied customers as well. One segment within the tourism and hospitality industry that’s performing exceedingly well according to Nayar is the cruise line industry. A few years ago, the larger ships had four or five rooms available for physically handicapped travelers. Today, those larger ships have 25 or more rooms available.

Twelve percent of disabled Americans have taken a cruise, which depending on the study is at or above the national average for all travelers. Cruise ships are convenient for those with limited mobility. There are no ground transportation issues to deal with and many of today’s modern ships allow easy access to pool areas, restaurants, theaters and casinos — in others words they get to enjoy the same services as any able-bodied passenger. While the cruise line industry should be lauded for their growth and understanding of the disabled marketplace ground transportation remains a major problem with the exception of Amtrak. Amtrak reported year over year sales gains for disabled travelers of $19 million back in 2009, because they made life easier for their special needs passengers.
Nayar points to taxi service in New York City as one example of an area that needs serious improvement. There are approximately 375 taxis out of 12,000 that are disabled accessible and reaching them is not easy. And if a passenger is lucky enough to locate one, they are charged limousine rates.

For the airline industry treatment of the disabled is a mixed bag. While complaints by the disabled as compared to complaints of lost luggage or flight delays are relatively low, we are dealing with lives here not time or property. Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Transportation slapped Delta with a record $2 million fine for what the agency termed “egregious” violations that included deliberately breaking the rules meant to make flying easier for disabled passengers.  Here’s a short list of just some violations reported against Delta — they left a blind woman alone in a wheelchair on a moving walkway, an 81-year-old passenger spent the night sleeping in a wheel chair because Delta failed to bring him to a hotel after a flight was cancelled, an elderly couple missed an international flight because Delta left them sitting in their wheel chair while the plane was boarding.

Another passenger was refused boarding because they would not allow her to bring her medical equipment on board, which included a ventilator so she could breathe. To be fair, Delta was one of 11 airlines fined for the treatment of disabled passengers since 2008. Some of those fines reached $600,000.

Here are a few tips about the disabled or special needs travelers that may help in how you market to them or service their needs according to Nayar.  First, disabled passengers usually avoid travel during high season. They prefer to stay away from crowds to make it easier for them to get around. Sounds like a good way to supplement revenues during slow periods and Nayar says they typically stay longer than the traditional passenger.

Next, ask your potential guest or client what they can and cannot perform. If the special needs person can’t answer those questions ask their traveling companion. For example, a person with muscular dystrophy has to be lifted out of their wheel chair into a seat whereas a person with multiple sclerosis can slide into a seat. Like the rest of us in society, the disabled don’t like being treated as something less than human. Where possible, and in most cases it’s possible, greet your guest or engage them as you would any other customer. Look them in the eye and speak directly to them. It’s your attitude that will have the most sway in their satisfaction and whether they refer other business your way.

There are people with severe food allergies, especially peanuts that fit the definition of special needs or disabled. You don’t want to watch a person go into anaphylactic shock at 30,000 feet, feed someone with severe food allergies a peanut-based food production or one cooked in peanut oil. The disabled are encouraged to use travel agents who specialize in disability travel — market to those agents. Like any other agent who specializes in a certain segment of this industry, these agents have connections that make life easier and know the pitfalls of travel to certain destinations. Many of these agents are listed on Seth’s website at (u) under resources.

Another way to target this audience according to Nayar is to advertise on websites or in magazines of the local or national associations that service a particular segment of the disabled. The National Association of the Deaf has multiple ways to reach their members and those they serve. Virtually every disability has a separate organization. Remember, those of us in the able-bodied community are one slip or fall away from joining the ranks of the disabled. How would you want to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot?
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