End of the line for travel companies ignoring young wheelchair users

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I joined Whizz-Kidz charity as Chief Executive in 2004 and have led the charity to become the biggest provider of powered and light weight manual wheelchairs for disabled children outside of the NHS, and one of the leading campaigning organisations in the sector.

Whizz-Kidz aims to ensure that every disabled child has an opportunity to be something special…a kid.

I’m a wheelchair user and have been a wheelchair user, pretty well all of my life. Over the years I have seen changes in people’s attitudes and expectations, not least in what disabled people can achieve, what we want and the things we expect for ourselves and our families.

There was a time, not so long ago, when being disabled meant also being hidden away from society. When my generation were growing up, children were still being called names that are so cruel and politically incorrect; I cannot even say them today. Being in a wheelchair was to be a ‘cr***le’. And that was probably the least offensive of the names we were called.

We grew up with low expectations of what we were expected to achieve. Holidays abroad were a fantasy and accessibility – or rather the lack of it – even kept us away from the most basic of holidays in the UK. Train travel was within our reach, sometimes, but even days out could be long and arduous.

But that was thirty years ago and this is 2020. The world has moved on, thankfully, HASN’T IT?

Today the children and young people who Whizz-Kidz represents still face difficult challenges, but generally there has been a sea-change in the public’s attitude to being different.

And yet, while disabled people may be heard, they are still not SEEN.

Wheelchair users are still not properly and proportionately reflected in advertising – whether in cosmetics, fashion or travel. The ‘inclusive family’ on the glossy brochures still reflect a healthy, smiling, nuclear-family, usually white, overwhelmingly young,  all teeth and smiles but never, ever with a wheelchair. Why is that? What does it say about us and, more pertinently, what does it say about the travel industry and its attitudes to us as potential paying- and travelling- customers?

Is the travel industry missing a trick? I think so. There is an untapped market of people who would travel more, who would spend and who would be loyal to a brand, looking for accessible and reliable holidays. The elusive company that has bothered to map out what their route looks like, how they can get from A to B, and who have pre-thought through the pinch points that could change a fantastic time away to a nightmare of inaccessible street.

Times are changing and equality is becoming the expected norm, especially to the under 30s who grew up knowing about legal rights and human ones, too.

Some of the young people we have helped and who we provided bespoke wheelchairs for are tech savvy, bright and inquiring. This is the generation who are already knocking at the travel industry’s door and asking for equality of rights, access and attitude. We no longer think it is okay to close the door based on colour, creed or faith, we no longer frown upon minority groups and different opinions, so why oh why do we still think wheelchair users should receive a second or third class service? My generation had to accept being treated differently, but the young adults of today will expect to be treated just like any other paying customer.

So that is the big moan. That real accessibility and equality of attitude is still a long way off.  But you know that.

I guess what I mean to say, is that there are good guys in the industry, the ones who see that there is still a problem and who are ready and willing to listen and to make change.

So, how big is the challenge and how quickly can the travel industry work to fix it? Surely, you may say, this is a tiny fraction of the population? After all, disabled people are literally less visible than others, in the media, advertising and on holiday.

Well, here are some statistics that may give you pause for thought.

There are over 11 million people with a disability in the UK.

Around 8% of disabilities require the use of a wheelchair, amounting to around 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK. Two thirds of them are regular users.

The majority of wheelchair users are aged 60 or over; they account for more than two thirds of all wheelchair users in the UK.

6% (over 750,000) of children in the UK have a disability; they are most likely to come from low-income households.

When you listen to those bald statistics, you start to get some sense of how big the market is – millions of people who want to travel and who are currently being under served.  If only ten per cent of those 1.2 million wheelchair users  utilised your services…. Well… I will leave it to you all to do the maths.  The service industry took many years to wake up to the Pink Pound, to LGBT travellers and to the lack of attention to BAME customers, yet it still misses out on the million plus travellers on wheels, each one as keen to see the world as any other.

So, what can the travel industry do?

First off, signpost services better. Have a disability button on your website. Add more subtitled and audio described video content showing disabled access in your hotels, on your boats and trains. Floor layouts, where possible.

Train staff how to better understand what it feels like to be a wheelchair user. About the use of appropriate language. And focus on courtesy and treating people with respect, as you would any other customer.

Encourage employers to take on staff from all sectors of the disabled community. Talk about access. Don’t be scared to highlight where organisations are falling down and failing to be inclusive.

Make wheelchair users visible in your advertising and begin the long road to accepting that customers should be treated equally in all situations.

None of this will be easy. Some of it will be difficult and involve educating staff from the top down, but it is time that the travel industry, like all others, acknowledged that it has a duty to be part of a better world; one where people in wheelchairs are as sought after and valued, as customers, as everyone else.

We ask- we want- we need-  we require- that the industry makes changes. Better to do it now than in ten years’ time. Because the next generation won’t ask, they will demand it.

Let me end by posing some questions for you, ones that might help clarify what wheelchair users need and what might kick-start a better relationship between the disabled community and the travel industry.

- What is your organisation doing to change entrenched attitudes?

- What practical steps are you putting in place to make accessibility a reality?

- Do you consider disabled people and particularly wheelchair users when you recruit?

- And have you thought about how your company relates to children and young people, especially those who have different needs?

When you want guidance and advice, focus groups or support in making change: remember, we can HELP you. Because we are also a charity doing amazing work for kids in wheelchairs, we need funds and we make no bones about it.

 

We are not a free resource, but we do work with companies and others to make a real difference.  So please do reach out to us, if you need help in changing the travel industry.

Finally, I’d like to tell you what I want to see in ten years’ time.

Travel companies promoting their holidays with images of kids in wheelchairs. Adults in wheelchairs. Old people in wheelchairs. When that day comes, we will know that we have truly started to become the inclusive society that everyone deserves society has started to become inclusive.

 

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