Disabled travelers question operators’ language on ‘inclusive’ and ‘accessible’ holidays

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The number of tourist attractions in Queensland that advertise themselves as wheelchair accessible is on the rise, but some visitors find the use of the term misleading and want commercial operators and the tourism industry to be more transparent about wheelchair-accessible claims. ‘accessibility.

On a recent trip to Cairns, holidaymakers Clyde and Robin Paterson struggled to find a tour that could accommodate their electric wheelchairs, even though tour operator websites claimed inclusiveness.

“We were actually told by a number of tour operators that everything was going to be wheelchair accessible, and we only found out when we arrived, that’s not really the case,” Mr Paterson said.

“What the reef operators say and offer is not true. It’s as simple as that.”

Several tour operators offer daily access to the Great Barrier Reef.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Further research revealed that while many tour operators could carry wheelchairs, most could only carry wheelchairs up to a certain size and weight.

Spotted stingray hiding under large coral in the shallows of the Great Barrier Reef
Marine life is abundant on the reef.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

For Mrs Paterson, a spina bifida sufferer and primary carer for her husband with multiple sclerosis, transportation proved to be a major issue.

‘We wanted to take a tour of the Daintree but couldn’t find a tour company that could accommodate us,’ Ms Paterson said.

“We were told that none of the buses had lifts so we had to visit the Daintree ourselves by taxi.”

She said they would have preferred to tour the area with a tour guide, but had no choice but to hire a taxi for the day, which cost over $1,000.

“I’m a little angry that we’re missing out on things other people take for granted,” she said.

While the Patersons have been able to enjoy tourism experiences that meet their needs, they said more education is needed about what inclusive and accessible travel really means.

“Tour operators need to understand what it is like to be in a wheelchair or to be disabled before they can make decisions about their accessibility,” Mr Paterson said.

Behavioral barriers are also problematic

Dane Cross is the Senior Advisor for Access and Inclusion at Spinal Life Australia.

He said that as a quadriplegic he struggled with people’s lack of understanding about the challenges wheelchair users face.

He said people often confuse the terms accessible and inclusive.

Dane Cross says he faces daily challenges living in a wheelchair
Mr Cross would like to see more tour operators cater for disabled tourists.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

“When you label something as accessible, people assume full accessibility. So if you say you’re wheelchair accessible, you want to be able to hang your hat on it,” he said.

“Physical barriers are a problem, but so are behavioral barriers.”

Mr Cross said the same applied to transport operators.

“A vacation is not just about having an accessible hotel room. You want to get out and experience the area and that means being able to move around,” he said.

“Tourists with disabilities rely on airlines, taxis, trains and buses, and unfortunately accessible transport is not always available.”

Tourism team to live a real experience

Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ) chief executive Mark Olsen agreed the tourism industry still has a long way to go.

“We know that around one in three Australian households identify as having a family member with an accessibility issue,” he said.

Mark Olsen smiles in front of Cairns Lagoon with apartments behind.
Mark Olsen says inclusive tourism is an important issue for the industry.(ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

Mr Olsen said TTNQ had launched a campaign to address the issues.

He said the industry intended to hold workshops with tour operators later in the year to address some of the challenges faced by travelers with disabilities.

“We’re putting some of our tourism leaders in an accessibility challenge where we’re going to hurt their vision,” Olsen said.

“We’ll put them in a wheelchair and give them a walking frame and film the whole experience.

“It’s so that we can experience it physically ourselves as leaders and decision makers in the tourism industry to ensure that we truly understand the challenges and make good decisions.”

Mr Olsen said he would like to see tourism operators lead the charge to be more inclusive and accessible.

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