It’s time for the travel industry to work on accessibility
The average able-bodied traveler, like myself, has the privilege of not needing to consider certain things while on the road. I’ve never needed to email a hotel to check that they have an elevator, or map my route based on how to avoid cobblestone streets. And this is such a privilege. So to address this privilege, learn about the challenges faced by disabled travelers, and how the travel industry can do better, I met with Andrew Gurza.
Andrew is a disability awareness consultant who has devoted his life to understanding and exploring what disability means. Through his own lived experience, he talks about disability in an honest way. He does this through speaking engagements, presentations, blog writing, and, his podcast, Disability After Dark.
Andrew invited my podcast producer and I to his home in Toronto so that we could record a podcast episode about traveling disabled. I was so nervous to meet him - but that nervousness melted away the second we walked through the door, because Andrew is so welcoming, and hilarious. He had us instantly laughing, so when it came time to talk travel we were over the social anxiety.
Do you prefer to listen to Erin and Andrew’s discussion on Alpaca My Bags podcast? You can hear the discussion, here: Disability and travel: airlines, get your sh*t together
Before we could dive into the nuances of traveling disabled, we covered some basics to preface our conversation.
Discussing disability, I learned from Andrew, is full of nuance and all about communication. Andrew started by telling me that people need to be aware that disability could affect anybody, at any time. Similarly, people around you could be experiencing disability without looking like they do. Disability can range from the obvious to the very non-obvious. For example, chronic pain will actively impact a person’s daily experience of the world, and present very unique challenges. But to another person, those challenges go completely unnoticed. The bottom line? Most of us will be impacted by disability at some point in our lives. And this terrifies people, making it difficult to talk about.
To begin, I asked Andrew what he feels is important to focus on when discussing disability. “The feeling,” he told me. He explained that able-bodied folks will ask him how he “ended up” in a wheelchair, or “what’s wrong with you?” These questions not only signal ableism, but they point out how able bodied folks often don’t consider how disability feels. “No one asks, how does it feel to be disabled today?” says Andrew.
Ableism is discrimination against a disabled person because they are disabled. When an airline damages your mobility device, and instead of compensation they give you a voucher to fly with them again - that’s ableism. When someone asks a person in a wheelchair, hey what happened to you!? That’s ableism.
Andrew tells me that to challenge ableism it’s important to ask marginalized people what language they prefer. He explains that he personally likes identity-first (also known as person-first) language: language that acknowledges that disability is part of him and his daily life. That’s why he is comfortable with people using the term “disabled.”
Calling people by the language that they ask you to demonstrates that you respect and care about them. So if you haven’t been told, or aren’t sure about how a marginalized person wants to be referred to, just ask. Because asking someone to share with you how they like to be identified is a sign of respect.
How do you travel with disability?
*Note that this conversation is based on Andrew's personal experience as a wheelchair user. This conversation cannot speak to the experiences of others, for example a person who experiences blindness, or chronic pain.
When I ask Andrew this, he instantly sums it up: preparation. Andrew tells me he learned this early on, when he would travel with his parents as a child. Before a trip, he’d see his Mom on the phone for ages, calling airlines to let them know they’d require help and calling the hotels to ask about accessibility. She taught him by example that he would have to do the same things when he would later travel without her. For him travel would be different, and maybe not easy. But this didn’t mean he couldn’t do it.
I ask Andrew to tell me some of the specific hurdles he encounters while traveling. He chuckles, telling me the list could go on forever. But ...here’s a quick summary.
After you’ve booked a flight, call the airline. You’ll need to tell them about your mobility device and ensure they have the resources to help you onto the plane.
Call the airport to ask about accessibility. Do they have accessible washrooms?
When you arrive at the airport for your flight, you’ll have to ask about ground crew to see if there is someone who can lift you from your mobility device and onto the plane.
Make sure that there is accessible transport at your destination, and that your hotel is accessible.
These are some of the practical considerations. And what they have in common is ableism. Often, Andrew explains, ableism can become incredibly pronounced while traveling. He tells me about how on a recent trip to New York City, his chair was damaged both on the way there and on the way back. The airline he’d flow with offered him a $500 dollar voucher for the damage to his chair, which is a $30,000 mobility device. “It’s like if you got on a plane, and while you were on it they broke your legs,” he says, “and then they gave you a voucher to fly with them again. Would you want to fly again on an airline that broke both your legs?” This is clear cut ableism, and straight up prejudice, Andrew says. When airlines are not prepared for disabled travelers and can’t own up to their mistakes, it sends a message: that they shouldn’t travel.
How can travel be made more accessible?
For travel to become more accessible, the messaging around disability and travel needs to improve, and the travel industry needs to work on providing unprejudiced accommodation. “It’s scary that its 2020 that we haven't built planes yet where a wheelchair can just roll on,” Andrew says. And he’s right. Building planes that accommodate wheelchairs is not rocket science. This simple adjustment would not only convey to disabled travelers that they deserve to fly, but that they deserve to fly comfortably, and without concern for the safety of the mobility devices that they rely on.
Andrew emphasizes the importance of inviting people with disabilities to work with airlines and other tourism-focused companies and services. Staff who experience the feeling, and understand the needs of disability can best inform companies as to how they can best accommodate travelers that have a disability.
And of course, there’s the power of the amplified message. One way that able-bodied folks can help bring visibility to the issue of ableism in the travel industry is by sharing the messages and experiences of disabled people. “If you see that I’m tweeting at Air Canada about how they damaged my chair, retweet it. Tell everyone around you to retweet it,” says Andrew. By amplifying the voices and experiences of disabled travelers, we can bring more visibility to the prejudice they face, and create pressure for airlines and other companies to do better.
Tips for a first-time disabled traveler
I figure that in his years of traveling the globe, Andrew must have some tips for other disabled travelers. So I ask him, and he smiles. “Be nervous, that’s totally okay,” he says. Aside from that, prepare as much as you can in advance. To help with this, talk to other disabled travelers. There is a massive community made up of blogs, social media users, podcasters, and influencers that can help. Curb Free with Cory Lee for example, is a blog that is dedicated to sharing the world from a wheelchair user’s perspective.
As we wrap up our discussion, Andrew reminds me that all of us will experience disability or chronic illness at some point in our lives. Instead of being terrified of it, we should embrace this fact, and work to build a world that is accessible.
Do you want to hear more from Erin and Andrew’s discussion on Alpaca My Bags podcast? You can listen to the discussion, here: Disability and travel: airlines, get your sh*t together