Travel 6 Ways Travel Has Become More Accessible During the Pandemic

19:45  01 september  2020
19:45  01 september  2020 Source:   cntraveler.com

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  6 Ways Travel Has Become More Accessible During the Pandemic © Courtesy Hidden Iceland/Tom Archer.

As a traveler with a neurological condition whose symptoms mimic a stroke, I’ve often wished that the travel industry would extend more flexibility and compassion to people with disabilities. Pre-pandemic, I faced a multitude of challenges when traveling: excessive fees when debilitating symptoms forced me to postpone or cancel a trip; ill-prepared tour operators that excluded me from activities without offering an alternative, or worse, put me in danger due to their lack of forethought. During the pandemic, I’ve seen glimmers of hope and guidelines for reopening safely for travelers with disabilities. While there are a number of pandemic protocols, such as face masks, that have created additional obstacles for those with disabilities, there are also a few new habits that, if made permanent, could make for a much more inclusive travel industry.

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1. Flexible booking and cancellation policies

The abrupt arrival of the pandemic necessitated a shift to more flexible policies across the industry, from boutique hotels to international airlines. Now, a desire to attract customers back has led to new policies, such as G Adventures “Book with Confidence” terms that allow for lower or no penalties for cancellations closer to the departure date.

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.

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“The fact that airlines were able to enact these policies so quickly means they’ve long had the technology and capability to be more customer-friendly,” says Michelle González, a travel expert with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. She notes that it can be a win all around; if the airline holds the ticket value as a credit for future travel without tacking on large change/cancellation fees, “they’ve still captured that business while instilling a sense of comfort in customers.”

Even tour operators accustomed to forgiving policies are updating them. Hidden Iceland is now offering bespoke cancellation policies on request and open-ended tickets valid through 2022. CEO and co-owner Dagný Björg says the company has long had flexible booking and cancellation policies, particularly as weather can disrupt an itinerary. Hidden Iceland plans to maintain this level of customer-friendliness in collaboration with local partners. “On our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon tour, for example, we stay overnight at Lilja, a secluded farm guesthouse, to search for the Northern Lights,” she says. “Before COVID-19, [Liljia’s] patience and flexibility helped during unexpected bad weather days. Today it helps at a much larger scale. Having these strong relationships is the best and only way to operate, even when COVID-19 becomes a part of history.”

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a woman standing on a sidewalk: Marika Devan appreciates the new flexibility policy bookings, as she sometimes has to cancel a trip last-minute due to her symptoms. © Courtesy Marika Devan Marika Devan appreciates the new flexibility policy bookings, as she sometimes has to cancel a trip last-minute due to her symptoms.

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.”

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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.

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Janice S. Linz, 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. Linz says more induction loops—systems that provide a signal to send sound directly to the hearing aid or cochlear implant—are needed.

a person riding on top of a lake: Allie Schmidt, who has a motor neuron disease, is optimistic about the increase in contact-free options at hotels. © Courtesy Allie Schmidt Allie Schmidt, who has a motor neuron disease, is optimistic about the increase in contact-free options at hotels.

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.

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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.”

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