One of the things I really enjoyed this summer was getting out to a number of food, wine and craft beer events around Ontario. I love attending these kinds of events—food is my passion! Unfortunately, at one or two of them, I had to forego sampling a few of the culinary choices because the food stations were located on a sidewalk with a curb or on uneven terrain. My wheelchair may be motorized but even it hasn’t yet mastered the art of climbing curbs…
I’m sorry to say this lack of accessibility was not an isolated event. I recently stayed at a hotel where the accessible room was on the second floor, which meant that in the (hopefully unlikely) event of a fire, I would need assistance. When I inquired about the hotel’s evacuation plan for a guest with a disability, I was met with quizzical looks, and then almost panic as the front desk staff realized that the stairs—the usual method of evacuation in a fire—were not an option for me and my 500-pound wheelchair. There was no evacuation chair for carrying me down the stairs, nor had the hotel thought to put the accessible room on the main floor.
Every year, I travel to approximately 60 entertainment, cultural and recreation leisure events. (Yup…I’m on the go!) I rarely travel alone. On most occasions, a swarm of colleagues, friends or family members are with me—the more the merrier. So, I’m a fabulous source of tourism revenue, or a missed opportunity, depending on how a tourism destination or hospitality service responds.
By “responds,” I don’t only mean that the event or destination has to be physically accessible, although clearly that is a must if I’m to be able to participate. The response also needs to make me feel welcome and included, through the attitudes, interactions and practices of those working at the restaurant, hotel or cultural event.
Take, for example, the restaurant I visited recently with a group of friends. The entrance was accessible—with automatic door openers that actually worked (you might be surprised at how often door openers don’t function). There was a unisex washroom where my female attendant felt comfortable assisting me. And the menu was in large enough font that I could read it. Those were the “accessible” aspects.
As for the “inclusive” aspects, the server spoke directly to me about my menu choices. (This may seem obvious, but many people, when they see I am non-verbal, ask my attendant or friends what my preferences are.) The server also patiently read aloud my order as I spelled it out on my communication board. Even without the delicious food that subsequently arrived, this was an optimum dining experience for me and my friends.
Tourism and hospitality is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in the world. In this fiercely competitive market, the tourism and hospitality industry is learning that future success is rooted in creating an accessible, inclusive and customized experience.
Entrepreneur and author Daniel Willey reminds us that “Too often, we miss out on opportunities in this life because we were too busy waiting for them to fall into our lap that we missed them tapping on our shoulder.” People with disabilities are tapping on the shoulder of the tourism industry with a clear message: We’re travelling, we have money and influence, and we’re here to give you your competitive edge!
When the tourism industry provides a great human experience for travellers of all abilities…they rock!