Ask an expert: How can tourism become more accessible for disabled travellers?

- December 1, 2023

(Kampus Productions photo/Pexels)
(Kampus Productions photo/Pexels)

The busy holiday travel season is almost upon us, with accessibility top of mind for advocates who say the tourism industry still has serious work to do towards reducing barriers for people with disabilities.

An international research project spearheaded by Dalhousie’s MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance is seeking to help guide the industry on that path.The Future of Tourism for People with Disabilities project, a partnership with the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, is exploring how the tourism industry can better accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

The project uses ‘scenario planning’ sessions, which bring together a variety of stakeholders to engage with the challenges and opportunities related to improving accessibility. 

To understand what the researchers are learning, Dal News spoke with the MacEachen Institute’s Scholarly Director Dr. Kevin Quigley.

What spurred the MacEachen Institute to pursue this research project?

The MacEachen Institute has conducted two previous research projects that led to the present project on the Future of Tourism for People with Disabilities. The first was our project on evacuations for people with disabilities and other particular functional needs, which involved conducting an environmental scan of emergency management policies and programs for people in these groups.

The second was the scenario planning sessions we conducted with the Halifax tourism industry to help them respond to the devasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their industry.

While working with people with disabilities and people in the tourism industry, we saw connections between these projects. Specifically, we saw both the importance of tourism for well-being in modern society, as well as the difficulty people with disabilities experience while travelling.

The research team has already completed three scenario planning sessions, with one more to come along with further research in Scotland. So far, what has been the biggest takeaway out of these collaborative sessions?

Accessibility issues are an everyday challenge both for tourists with disabilities visiting a destination and the destination’s residents. By making improvements geared towards accessibility for tourists, we improve the experience of the residents, and vice versa.

There is still a widespread misunderstanding about what accessibility means, which is resulting in ineffective and poorly implemented accessibility measures that exclude many people with disabilities. Major work is needed to educate people on the true meaning of accessibility.

The challenges and opportunities of accessible tourism must be understood through multiple lenses.

What are steps the tourism industry can take today to ensure they are improving the accessibility of their services?

The tourism industry is made up primarily of small and medium-sized enterprises, who represent 99 per cent of the industry, while large companies such as airlines and hotels make up the remaining one per cent. The industry is highly competitive with small margins and is highly vulnerable to market fluctuations. Many of these smaller companies are more concerned with meeting immediate financial concerns than long-term investments.

The industry has high employee turn-over rates and can at times be considered exploitative, due to low wages and unstable employment. The tourism sector employs many vulnerable populations, including more immigrants and racialized persons than any other sector in Canada.

People with disabilities must be involved and fairly compensated at all levels of the tourism industry. Employing people with disabilities at all levels of the tourism industry may be a highly effective way improving the accessibility of their services. One of the most effective ways of shifting negative attitudes towards people with disabilities is to work with them directly. Having people with disabilities in upper leadership positions may be especially effective because it will help ensure that regulations and company policies are being put in place by people who have experience with disabilities. Businesses in the tourism industry must create company-wide cultures of accessibility, starting at the top. Especially in an industry with high staff turnover, focusing exclusively on front-line workers will not lead to effective, long-term changes.

Business is also driven by competition. By improving and effectively advertising their own accessibility, companies will raise the bar for others in the industry, driving them to improve to stay relevant.

What is the role of government regulation in this process? How can the tourism industry be held accountable for their role in improving accessibility?

For large companies, strict regulations can be highly effective, especially for those in industries that are already highly regulated, such as airports. They can also provide the momentum for these companies to improve above and beyond the demands of the law.

For small- and medium-sized companies, stick and carrot approaches may be more effective. Regulations must be implemented, but it is also crucially important to make companies aware of how these changes will benefit them economically and provide them with the financial support they need to get there. Governments must educate these businesses on the legal obligations, the economic opportunities, and the available financial supports available.

Media coverage can also be an effective tool for holding companies accountable, as we’ve seen in the case of Canadian airlines. However, negative media coverage can also result in band-aid solutions that fail to address the roots of the problem — for example, if companies fire an employee associated with the media scandal but fail to address issues in the company culture and policies that enabled their behaviour to occur in the first place.


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