Tourist Profile: Kevin Penny


Globe-trotting in a power wheelchair

By MacEachen Institute Staff | Nov. 9, 2023
Research participant and experienced traveller Kevin Penny

Like many people, Kevin Penny caught the travel bug after his first journey: a trip to Disney World in 2002.

For Penny, who became a quadriplegic and began using a wheelchair at 15 after a bicycle accident, the trip set a high standard for accessibility in tourism that he continues to use as a benchmark. “It’s clear that the staff receive training in accessibility,” says Penny. “You can go to any staff member with a request or an issue and they almost always know exactly how to handle it.”

Disney also lets guests with disabilities skip most lines for the attractions. “I should wear a ‘Rent Me’ sign,” he jokes. “I’ll tell parents ‘Take me with you and your kids won’t have to wait in line.’”

Unfortunately, other parts of the tourism industry aren’t always as experienced in accessibility. 

In one example, Penny describes being at an airport waiting to board a flight and being told his wheelchair would not fit in the cargo hold of the plane. To explain the delay in boarding, the attendant used the intercom to tell passengers that the flight was delayed “because we’re having problems getting a wheelchair on the plane”. “It was embarrassing,” says Penny. “It’s not hard to look around the gate and figure out whose wheelchair they were talking about.”

Greater accountability for major players

While these negative experiences are difficult to control, Penny says that knowing his rights is a powerful tool for navigating travel. “If you don’t know the rights you’re entitled to, you don’t know if they’re being violated,” he says. In the past, staff have told him that the accommodations he requires violate a certain policy or procedure. “Now I can say, well, the policy is against the law,” he says.

Despite these experiences, Penny is optimistic about the progress the industry has been making in the last several years. He mentions a conference he recently attended where he spoke about accessibility issues and disability rights. “There were representatives from Air Canada and other big companies there. A few years ago, you would never see them at a conference like that. But now they’re coming to the table, they want to learn.”

Penny attributes much of the positive change he’s seen in recent years to changes in the attitudes of the general public. As this attitudinal shift continues, companies are being pressured to adopt more inclusive policies. “It’s bad PR for them to be seen discriminating against people with disabilities,” he says. 

He’s right. A recent string of headlines about people with disabilities being subjected to unfair and degrading treatment by airline staff have prompted action from the federal government and brought widespread attention to the issue. Penny sees this as a positive development. “Airlines have been given a ‘get out of jail free’ card for a long time,” he says. “I hope they’re going to be held accountable.”

Reasons for optimism

Recently, Penny participated in a series of scenario planning sessions hosted by the MacEachen Institute. The findings from these sessions will be used to develop policy recommendations to governments and tourism industry leaders on improving accessibility.

Projects like this one contribute to Penny’s belief that things are going to continue improving. The appetite for change is growing, and Penny is confident that this will lead to better experiences for people with disabilities in the tourism sector and beyond. Despite there being many more issues to be addressed, “attitudes are changing,” he says. “I feel like I’m living at the right time to see a fundamental shift.” 

Read more about the MacEachen Institute's research on accessible tourism for people with disabilities.