Disabled travellers: Tourism’s blind spot

Tourism facilities in South Africa are well-developed for able-bodied travellers, but frequently fail to cater for people with disabilities.

For most of us, it’s easy enough to book a holiday. The only things we really need to know are whether it’s affordable and available. People with disabilities have to be skilled researchers just to find out if they’ll be able to have a bath or get inside the front door. Worse, places claiming to be wheelchair-friendly usually aren’t.

‘People don’t always understand what accessible means,’ said Thomas Micklem, who travels alone in his wheelchair. ‘They think that just a ramp into the building is enough.’ On a recent trip to Laingsburg, Micklem tried every guesthouse and hotel in town and found there wasn’t one that was really accessible, even though two establishments were advertised as wheelchair-friendly.

Karin Coetzee, an occupational therapist who consults on disabled travel, believes the intentions of establishments wanting to become accessible are good, but the specifications often aren’t followed. ‘There are very few consultants available,’ said Coetzee. ‘The best would be to contact QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) or the Association for the Physically Disabled for a recommendation.’

The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA) only recently launched a grading for accessibility. First conceived in 1987, the national accessibility grading took 20 years to get off the ground and still faces difficulties. ‘It’s a universal accessibility grading, so it includes sight, hearing and mobility impairments,’ said Heinrich Spies of TGCSA.

Out of 80 hotels assessed by TGCSA at the time of going to print, none had yet qualified and only four guesthouses had received a grading. ‘If any criteria aren’t met, it fails,’ said Spies, who claims stringent control is necessary to retain the credibility of the new grading.

Maria Jansen van Rensburg, rooms division manager at the Westin Grand in Cape Town, which was recently assessed by TGCSA for the grading, says the hotel was surprised to discover how well they were doing. ‘But our hotel was built to be accessible from its inception. It’s obviously harder when something is already built and you have to change things.’

In South Africa, the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 2000 has many provisions for accessibility, as do national building regulations. But loopholes, a lack of enforcement and widespread ignorance and prejudice mean  establishments turn a blind eye to South Africa’s legal and constitutional requirements of equal access for disabled people.

Ari Seirlis, national director of QASA, says there are good reasons for tourism establishments to be accessible, including 2010 and the growing market of people with disabilities or impairments. ‘Rather let it be the market that drives the incentive to cater for this group, who are as eager to travel as anybody else, than the threat of “you must do it”,’ said Seirlis.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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