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16-31 August 2008  
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Event Round Up

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The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) India Chapter recently conducted a series of seminars on accessible travel in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi and Chennai. By Chetan Kapoor

The travel and tourism industry is witnessing a turnaround. While on one hand there is a possibility of businesses shutting down, on the other there exists an opportunity to tap these businesses and look at newer niches in the market. While segments like adventure, women travel, gastronomy, archaeology and gay and lesbian tourism have caught up, travel for the disabled seems to be making itself heard.

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) India Chapter organised a first of its kind seminar called 'Accessible Travel' that was held recently in the cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi and Chennai. Rajeev Kohli, its president, said, "We are hosting a series of training programmes for our members and judging by our last seminar in New Delhi where we had an audience of more than 100, including the secretary of tourism, proves the recognition this issue is getting."

The speakers included Scott Rains of Ticket To Travel - Accessible Travel for the Disabled, Craig Grimes - a freelance travel writer and proprietor of several websites dedicated to 'accessibility' and Jani Nayar, executive coordinator from the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH).

Standing L-R: Gajendra Singh Panwar, VP, ASTA India Chapter, Rajeev Kohli, president, ASTA India Chapter (centre) with Jani Nayar, executive coordinator, SATH and Mohan-Narayanaswamy, treasurer, ASTA India Chapter
Sitting: Craig Grimes, travel writer (extreme left) and Scott Rains of Ticket To Travel - Accessible Travel for the Disabled (extreme right)

Scott Rains and Jani Nayar interact with Ketna Mehta from the Nina Foundation for People with Spinal Injury while others look on

Looking beyond

In 1998, Fortune magazine stated that close to 24 million disabled people travelled at least once in six months. They constituted about ten per cent of the world's population, excluding senior citizens. Looking at India, the 2001 census revealed that over 21 million people in the country suffered from some kind of disability, equivalent to 2.1 per cent of the population. Of that, disability in seeing led at 48.5 per cent while those in movement followed at 27.9 per cent, mental at 10.3 per cent, speech at 7.5 per cent and hearing at 5.8 per cent.

Rains remarked that disability was normal. He said, "The young and the old aren't strong enough either. The evolving definition by the United Nations is based on functionality and not on medical diagnosis. Hence, we want to find solutions and our job is to change attitudes towards disability."

Raising awareness towards disability was echoed throughout the day across various sessions with speakers talking about people enabling people instead of laws enabling people. Nayar mentioned on the sidelines, "Travel for the disabled is a very lucrative and untapped market and only an increased insight shall result in improved service for these travellers. For instance, if a client injures a leg, the travel agent may not know the special travel arrangements that must be made for people with disabilities (PwD). In this case, a specialist travel agent with relevant knowledge will be able to take care of the client better. Even when the client is cured, they will prefer to make all travel arrangements with the specialist."

However, the crucial aspect missed by most planners at the designing stage is accessibility, and for Grimes it is all about putting the person first and not their disability. He says, "I think it is probably a lack of information and culture for many. The disabled have been at home all this while and even hotels having facilities for the disabled aren't advertising enough."

"The sales point for hotels and brand India is Atiti Devo Bhava especially when guests are getting older. There is a need to understand this aspect and train hotel staff and make them realise that a wheelchair is part of the body (of the disabled) and that they need to observe, interact and understand their needs," said Rains.

Some do’s & don’ts
Don't Say…. Do Say…
Able - bodied Nondisabled
AIDS victim Person with AIDS
Brain damaged Person with brain injury
Crippled Person with a disability
Dwarf or midget Person of short stature
Epileptic Person with Epilepsy
Hyper Sensitive Person with Environmental illness
Insane Psychiatric disability
Mongoloid Has Down syndrome
Paralyzed Has spinal cord injury
Physically challenged Person with a disability
Retarded Person with mental retardation
Slow learner Has a learning disability
Spastic Person with cerebral palsy
Special children Children with disabilities
Stroke Victim Stroke Survivor
Suffers from MS Has MS
The blind People who are blind or visually impaired
The deaf People who are deaf or hearing impaired
Victim of Polio Has polio
Wheelchair-bound/ Confined to a wheelchair Uses a wheelchair
Yuppie flu Person with chronic fatigue syndrome
Source: Research & Training Centre on Independent Living.

Accessibility is the key

Accessibility for all is vital to make a destination more inclusive. For example, more disabled people would use an airport shuttle bus independently if they had adequate facilities. Similar is the case with local trains and other modes of public transportation. Logically, if various aspects of the human life - a child, an adult, an ageing individual - were looked into at the designing stage, then a more 'universal' design with basic adaptations such as building a ramp instead of steps and accessible toilets could be the answer. Also, it needs minimal investment if done during the planning stage and saves a lot in employing people for lifting persons with disabilities later.

Says Kohli, "This is a learning process for us. We need to understand the subject and the needs of the market. As a matter of fact, ASTA India Chapter has taken a decision of forming an action group by speaking to members of the trade and making this an ongoing process. We have no answers as we are not the experts but we have discovered the resource base to work with for this segment."

Places like malls, according to Nayar, are providing facilities for the disabled because they understand the importance of this segment. "At the same time, they should sell the product directly to the (disabled) consumer who will be the ultimate buyer instead of their caretaker," she stated. According to her calculations, looking into simple aspects during the designing level can cost less than one per cent while opening up the property to almost 6,50,000 disabled travellers and their family and friends.

Also, while there are mandatory guidelines set for the number of rooms to be reserved for PwD in hotels, similar arrangements are lacking during transportation and sightseeing. Another aspect where the disabled are 'ill-treated' is the choice of rooms wherein their choice is restricted to few rooms in the hotel, which are of universal design and disabled-friendly. Laments Grimes, "Why should we be deprived of rooms with good views? We are willing to pay the price if the rooms were universally accessible. More so, all rooms can be made accessible by simple attachments which can be plugged in and out rather than having fewer rooms."

This is of special importance since India has emerged as a leading medical tourism destination. Explains Ketna Mehta from Nina Foundation for People with Spinal Injury, "The policy for disabled friendly services exists on paper in the country but there is poor implementation and execution. There is disregard for the disabled and travel is a luxury for them. Lack of knowledge of universal designs by the service providers makes it a harrowing experience."

A better tomorrow

Equal participation by the tourism industry, the government and media will enhance the state of services offered to the disabled. Mehta believes that the disability component should be added in the travel and tourism courses and industry alike as it provides employment opportunities. "Tour operators also must have attractive prices for disabled people as they travel with their caretakers which doubles their expenses," she suggested.

Referring to employing the disabled, Nayar adds, "Employing people with disabilities in hotels for example, will make the disabled customer feel more comfortable. They are also proven to be good problem solvers and innovators at work." Best practices from across the world can be shared so as to fill the gaps in making India a friendly destination for the disabled. "There is a market to service a segment like this and cruises have done it," tells Kohli adding, "This event marks a beginning in recognising this segment and even the tourism ministry is keen on receiving a report from us to know more about this segment. In fact, we will recommend importing equipment in this market at 0.5 per cent duty so that this market can benefit."


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