I believe that a trip can change your life. Being able to connect with other cultures and see how people and landscapes change from place to place allows you to have a different perspective of life – I mean, who doesn’t like travelling? Unfortunately, not everyone can explore the world without limits; people with disabilities face a lot of challenges when they want to travel, as accessibility, and information relating to it, is hard to find. There are just over 1 billion people with disabilities around the world and 2 billion people are directly affected by it through family and friends, so almost one-third of the world’s population is impacted by disabilities. Is this still a minority? I don’t think so. And yet products and services are still very far from serving this segment of the population. There is a gap and a huge opportunity there. The travel industry has a lot of work to do to become more accessible for people with disabilities. Around 500 million people choose not to travel because of a lack of information on accessibility.
However, many people with disabilities are already travelling the world – in the U.S and Europe alone the accessible travel market is estimated to be worth $72 billion USD and you can be sure that they are not receiving the best service. In addition, almost half of all travellers with disabilities struggle with a lack of accessibility information at their destination. As mentioned before, a trip can change your life, so in 2016 a group of friends and I decided to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We wanted to hike the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. The challenge: to do it for the first time ever with my friend Alvaro, who uses a wheelchair. Alvaro Silberstein has been quadriplegic for the last 18 years because of a car accident, and has used a wheelchair since. Arranging this trip was very difficult; there was no information whatsoever about the accessibility of accommodation, local transportation or who could help us locally to do this trip like a tour operator. The trip was epic. How did we manage to hike a world-class trail in a remote corner of the world with someone who cannot walk? A few months earlier we’d found a French hiking wheelchair called Joëlette. This versatile one-wheeled all-terrain wheelchair allows you to access difficult terrain with the help of two people. For outdoor activities with people with mobility disabilities, adaptive equipment is key.
We decided to leave the Joëlette at Torres del Paine so future travellers could repeat the same trip. A few weeks later, we released a homemade documentary through our social media channels and the video unexpectedly went viral. Over one hundred people contacted us looking to repeat the same trip. That’s when Wheel the World was born. Wheel the World is an online marketplace where people with disabilities and their families and friends can find and book accessible travel products: places to stay and things to do.
We partner with different service providers like hotels or tour operators, gather detailed accessibility information with our own technology, and present the information in an organised way. Being able to find reliable information about accessibility online is a game changer for people with disabilities when it comes to travel, as it helps reduce the uncertainty around what to expect at a destination.
What type of information am I talking about? Accessible features in a hotel room, for example, such as the height of the bed, the type of shower or the characteristics of the transportation on a tour. There is already a lot of accessibility around the world, but almost no one knows that it is there, so gathering accessibility information is so important. We also need to work on making it more visible and easier to consume for this large community, and this needs to happen online. Additionally, companies in the travel sector must work on making their processes much friendlier for people with disabilities. A large percentage of travellers with disabilities continue not to get accessible rooms at hotels, even when they specifically book those rooms online. An even more dramatic example is the fact that in the US alone over 35,000 wheelchairs are destroyed by airports and airlines every year. The need for accessible travel grows further if you factor in that 12% of the global population is over 65 years old, which in many cases implies mobility challenges and therefore accessibility needs. As life expectancy keeps growing, it is estimated that by 2050 this will grow to 20% of the world population. This segment has increased its purchasing power and at the same time, demands more customised travel services. It is clear that making the travel industry more accessible is an interesting business opportunity for all players in the market and is of course the right thing to do.
Collaboration is key to making the travel industry more accessible; the involvement of governments is very important in pushing laws and initiatives to increase the accessibility of a destination. Tourism offices or Destination Marketing Organisations can be enablers in making destinations more accessible and can push local tourism players to offer travellers with disabilities and seniors more. Additionally, they should promote initiatives to collect accessibility information and make it public online. The good news is that this is already happening and gaining momentum.
At Wheel the World we have already collaborated with tourism offices in Chile, Costa Rica, the UK and Qatar, to name a few, and with their help connected with the local tourism ecosystem more quickly to increase awareness of accessible travel, collect accessibility information and create more opportunities. If you are reading this and work in the services industry, take a minute to think about whether your organisation is already implementing actions to be more accessible for people with disabilities. Everyone will benefit from making the world a more accessible place, and whether we like it or not at some point we, or someone we love, might become part of this community.
Our dream at Wheel the World is to help millions of travellers with disabilities to explore thousands of destinations – and we need you to get there.