Access for disabled travellers has improved - but more work is needed
- Credit: citizenside.com
With millions of disabled tourists contributing billions to the economy, attraction owners and accommodation providers are waking up to the importance of accessibility. But, as Lauren Cope reports, there is much more to be done.
For most holidaymakers, booking a holiday comes down to little more than cost and location.
But for the millions of tourists with physical and mental impairments, the process, from where to stay to how to get there, is far more complex.
Visit England believes the UK accessible tourism market generates more than £12bn for the economy, roughly 20pc of the entire day and overnight trip spend in the country.
Disabled travel has long been one of the biggest challenges facing the industry, with many high street agents, hotels and attractions unequipped to handle specialist arrangements.
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And though in recent years a focus has been put on increasing accessibility where possible, a lack of awareness is still holding travellers with health problems back.
Martin Dupee, director of operations at the Zoological Society of East Anglia (ZSEA), which runs Banham Zoo and Africa Alive, said accessibility was at the forefront of all business decisions.
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'We tailor everything we do to include everyone,' he said. 'When we build a new enclosure we are very aware that it needs to be suitable for all.
'We are lucky that our design features allow us to do so quite easily - I have seen other attractions that, logistically, find it much more difficult.'
He said the zoos were hoping to install a changing place for adults with disabilities and add wheelchair access to its Safari Roadtrain.
Mr Dupee, who is also chairman of Norfolk and Suffolk Tourist Attractions (NSTA) and on the Visit East Anglia board, said it was in businesses' interests to improve accessibility.
'There's a really strong business case for making sure that attractions cater for all,' he said. 'It is sound business sense. We can, of course, all improve what we do, but the attractions in the NSTA are very conscious of accessibility.'
Among them is Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, in South Walsham, which has added a sensory garden, Braille guides, hearing loops, mobility scooters and an accessible boat.
Meanwhile, Norwich Airport has also introduced wristbands for passengers with disabilities to signal to staff that extra support may be needed.
Though changes are being made, Mark Harrison, chief executive of disability charity Equal Lives, said holidays advertised as accessible were, on closer inspection, often not.
'Whether it is transport to go on holiday or a hotel's bathroom, disabled people often find there is a disconnect between what is promised and what is actually there,' he said.
'It is the same in many areas of life for disabled people - there is a lack of understanding about what accessible actually means and what is required.'
The law requires businesses to make 'reasonable adjustments' for people with disabilities, but spiralling costs and building layouts often make alterations unfeasible.
'What counts as reasonable?' Mr Harrison said. 'Take the Lanes in Norwich, for example. With it's cobbled streets and historic buildings, it's very difficult to make reasonable adjustments there.'
For the last 30 years, Park House Hotel in the Sandringham estate, which is run by Leonard Cheshire Disability, has catered for disabled families.
Hotel manager Tess Gilder said: 'Some of the people that come to us wouldn't be able to go anywhere else because their needs aren't met.
'Many hotels are not equipped - they think if they widen a door they solve the problem, but needs are often much more complicated than that.'
• Businesses faced with hurdles to improve accessibility
For years, Broads boating holiday firm Barnes Brinkcraft had a wheelchair friendly boat in its fleet.
A rarity for businesses on the waterways, director Daniel Thwaites said the boat, which had been in operation for 20 years, was 'booked solid' by less mobile customers and families, generating plenty of return bookings.
With a ramp which fitted on the back, it could be fixed onto quay headings so a wheelchair could be rolled down it.
But last year, the business received a call from environmental health officers to say it did not fit regulations.
'The bottom line was how unachieveable the things they wanted us to do were,' Mr Thwaites said. 'They wanted the ramp extended to a length which means you wouldn't have been able to store it on the boat - which defeats the point of even having it.
'Wording on and promoting the boat needed to be changed and we needed to be able to fix the ramp to banks - which is just not practical, because we don't know where people are going to moor up.'
He said they understood the logic behind the concerns, but said the changes would have been unfeasible to implement.
'We probably could have done some of the things they suggested,' he said, 'but the cost would have been unreasonable for us and, at the end of the day, the changes that were required were impractical.'
He said he and his brother Matthew, also a director, were 'very disappointed' and said many holidaymakers were forced to cancel their breaks.
'When it is so important to encourage accessibility, it seems a real shame to put businesses that are doing it off,' he said.
'When we took on the business making sure it was open to disabled people was something we were really keen on - our father died of a cross between Parkinson's and motor neurone disease, so it was very personal.
'I'm sure there are plenty of businesses out there that want to make changes, but are up against hurdles to do so.'