Pre-pandemic, travelers with disabilities faced a multitude of challenges when traveling: excessive fees when debilitating symptoms forcing to postpone or cancel a trip; ill-prepared tour operators excluding activities without offering an alternative, or worse, putting those in danger due to their lack of forethought. However, in this article written by Sunny Fitzgerald for Condé Nast Traveler, she outlines her own experience as a traveler with a neurological condition whose symptoms mimic a stroke. Since the onset of COVID-19, the travel landscape has changed completely, which also includes flexibility and compassion to travelers with disabilities. Fitzgerald acknowledges additional obstacles, including face masks, but also highlights a few new habits that, if made permanent, could make for a much more inclusive travel industry. Below, read her findings on how travel during the pandemic has become more accessible for travelers with disabilities, because representation matters.
1. Flexible booking and cancellation policies
From boutique hotels to international airlines, policies as flexible as the developing situation was necessary. Extending this same compassion and flexibility to travelers with disabilities even after the pandemic subsides would be a welcome step toward more accessible travel. On her blog, Clumsy Girl Travels, Marika Devan writes about traveling with ataxia, a degenerative neurological condition. She says sometimes her symptoms are so severe she needs to cancel a trip, but pre-pandemic it wasn’t easy to do so without incurring hefty fees.
2. An increase in safety and accessibility measures
The industry was quick to create coronavirus-related safety policies, market activities, and accommodations conducive to physical distancing. What if that enthusiasm and sense of urgency were applied to accessible travel? In the same way that destinations, operators, and agents have made pandemic info easy to find, they could proactively seek out and highlight accessible options for travelers with disabilities.
Dale Reardon of Tasmania, Australia says the pandemic has prompted increased interest in the inclusive travel market. Reardon uses a seeing-eye dog while traveling around his country and a cane for mobility when traveling internationally. He and his wife created Travel For All as a community and directory for accessible and inclusive travel. “It shouldn’t have required a pandemic, but businesses, particularly travel and accommodation-related, are really suffering so they are looking into attracting more customers—marketing to and providing services to new customers they haven’t targeted before,” he says. “This means some of them are much more receptive to fixing website accessibility issues, improving booking processes, and generally being far more open and accommodating to accessibility requirements.”
3. A move toward contact-free
The risk of COVID-19 led to the implementation of more contactless options, such as more automatic doors, which Reardon says also helps improve access for many with mobility issues. And Devan says she’d be happy to see contactless check-in continue post-pandemic. “I sometimes have slurred speech due to ataxia,” she says. “With this [contactless check-in], I don’t have to communicate with anyone.”
Allie Schmidt, creator of Disability Dame (an online resource for moms with chronic illness and disability) has a rare, undiagnosed motor neuron disease that is paralyzing her arms. She, too, is pleased with the increasing availability of touch-less options. “There’s no longer an endless amount of paperwork and documents to sign when doing things like checking into a hotel,” she says. “Since I can’t use my hands very well, moving to touch-less payments has made it a lot easier for me.” And for those with weakened immune systems due to a number of medical conditions, reduced contact and the elimination of physical expectations such as handshakes may be a welcome change.
Unfortunately, contactless pandemic protocols have also created additional obstacles. “As a Deafblind traveler, I rely heavily on my sense of touch,” says Haben Girma, an author and disability rights lawyer. Janice S. Lintz, founder and CEO of Hearing Access & Innovations, says that some of the changes meant to prevent contact have proven problematic for those with hearing loss. “People are wearing masks and there is plexiglass or glass everywhere which inhibits sound,” she writes via email. Lintz says more induction loops—systems that provide a signal to send sound directly to the hearing aid or cochlear implant—are needed.
4. Public spaces are easier to navigate
In many ways, pandemic mandates for physical distancing have made public spaces easier to navigate for travelers with disabilities. “General mobility everywhere is much more pleasant,” says Reardon, citing the lack of crowds and increased awareness of space between people, whether on the street, in a store, restaurant, or elsewhere. “As a blind person, this makes mobility easier.”
Devan says that reduced capacity on flights and elevators has also meant more room for travelers that use a cane or assistive device.
But González cautions that in rearranging spaces to suit pandemic protocol, properties, restaurants, and staff also need to keep in mind how to do so without excluding people with disabilities. She says removing benches and golf carts from resorts or closing seating areas outside restaurants in an effort to discourage people from gathering eliminates the option for folks that do need a safe place to sit.
5. Increased local offerings
In the absence of out-of-town visitors, many hotels and tour operators are paying more attention to their local market, expanding tour options and extending deeper discounts to residents. For people with disabilities that may not be able to travel long distances, expanded options and affordable prices could make local travel a more accessible and attractive option—if these programs continue post-pandemic.
Root Adventures, a responsible travel company with a focus on inclusivity, postponed all of their international trips in response to the pandemic and began developing North American tours for 2021. Owner Breanne Kiefner was diagnosed with a neurological condition as an adult and aims to create experiences that make all guests feel welcome. Adding these North America options—“a little closer and a little more affordable”—may make that possible for more people.
6. Virtual access is more than an afterthought
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, tour operators, hotels, tourism boards, museums, and more began offering virtual experiences around the world—revealing what’s possible with a little time and effort. “The pandemic has sparked many creative virtual travel projects,” Girma says. Although she’d prefer in-person experiences, she says that virtual options are indeed “making it easier for those with mobility disabilities to see places they might not otherwise see.”
But when in-person, international travel picks up again post-pandemic, will virtual experiences and those that are enjoying them be left behind? For folks unable to travel for any number of reasons, let’s hope not. “Business conferences, concerts, comedy events are being broadcast and taking place online, allowing us to be involved and learn and participate from a distance,” says Reardon. “Often travel is difficult, expensive, or inaccessible; these events are now much more accessible and affordable.”