Toxic Travel Chaos Impacts People With Disabilities

Caroline CaseyContributor
Sep 5, 2022

Everyone is talking about travel, whether this is the frequent rail strikes in the UK, the many delays and flight cancellations due to the lack of staff or the travel chaos caused by issues at borders. This can be hugely frustrating and has a debilitating effect on all travelers.

Regardless of the post COVID build back, current politics and the consequential obstacles presented in travel, if you have a disability, travelling is regularly a difficult and humiliating experience. Consider the 1.3 billion people with a disability of some sort – 80% of which are invisible – who regularly struggle with travel and so often have their dignity and independence challenged. The National Travel Survey for 2020 found that disabled adults made on average 28% fewer trips than non-disabled adults.

The fact is that we haven’t embraced inclusive design in the travel sector and therefore people with disabilities are excluded and denied the same customer experience or treatment as everyone else. We are seeing far too many examples of disabled people waiting unbearable lengths of time for assistance, being stranded on planes or left abandoned in airports.

The inability for wheelchair users to use aircraft toilets or business/first class; the lack of accessible hotel rooms; the critical lack of accessibility of websites, and the recent uncertainty over blue disabled badges in the EU –
where post-Brexit, eleven nations, including France, Spain and Portugal, remain “undecided” on whether they will accept the blue badge UK permit – reinforces negative perceptions of the disabled community as an inconvenience and afterthought.

We want an accessible and inclusive world but yet we have built it to be exclusive. It needs reshaping not adding on or as an afterthought and to achieve this we need disabled people to be involved in the design process – ‘Nothing for us without us’.

In recent days, we have seen ‘airport hacks’ shared on social media seeing people pretending to need a wheelchair when traveling through an airport to cut queues and get boarded quicker. Heathrow Airport’s CEO John Holland-Kaye has expressed the damage this has on those needing wheelchair assistance, and it must stop immediately. How do people think the disability community has an advantage in this travel chaos, where ableism is often the common factor in the struggles that people with disability face every day.

But many brands are waking up to this and making headway in providing inclusive and accessible travel services. Speaking with Robin Sheppard, chair of Bespoke Hotels, which has long been driving accessibility by pushing aesthetics higher up the agenda. At Hotel Brooklyn in Manchester, special features can be hidden or detached, which means spaces are pleasing to the eye, whatever your needs. This is surprisingly rare. Roomy marble showers are free of steps, doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs, and some suites have hoists for people; Sheppard comments, “we call these our liberty rooms; some people won’t see much of a difference in these spaces – we hope that for some, it feels like an upgrade.”

Skyscanner’s Accessibility Lead, Heather Hepburn, commented; “The travel industry has a huge opportunity to do better when it comes to accessibility. We’re on a journey to doing our part: through our Accessibility Programme at Skyscanner, we’re determined to continue to improve accessibility and inclusive design across all Skyscanner products; ensuring that digital accessibility is embedded into Skyscanner’s tools, processes, and ways of working. Alongside raising accessibility awareness and improving advocacy across the business, it’s our mission to make travel better for everyone.”

Skyscanner is focusing on increasing accessibility across its product, creating a series of accessible travel tips and a program of accessibility travel content (see one example at They have worked to ensure Skyscanner’s interactive map, created to help travelers navigate different travel restrictions, is as accessible as possible and works well with a screen reader. Since its launch, Skyscanner’s live travel map has been used over 37 million times globally to help travelers negotiate the complexities of Covid-19 restrictions.

With a global platform that includes more than 20+ brands, Expedia Group is setting out to make travel more accessible by increasing its own capabilities and is making the needed investments and taking action to create an equitable experience for travelers.

According to Peter Kern, Vice Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Expedia Group, “We believe travel is a force for good that can strengthen connections, broaden horizons, and bridge divides. We support this belief by making travel more enjoyable and accessible for all, including people with disabilities. Through our relentless innovation, we put the needs of travelers at the center of all we do and aim to eliminate as many barriers as possible.”

Inclusion is integral to the success of the travel industry, enabling individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, ability, gender identity or otherwise, to experience different cultures, perspectives, and opportunities. Travel strengthens connections and broadens horizons, yet historic, physical, and societal barriers often limit equitable access to travel. Making travel more accessible hinges on ensuring products are created to be usable by a full spectrum of people with the widest possible range of disabilities. In 2020, Expedia Group signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion- pledge, committing to mobilize the travel industry to make major actionable steps to promote diversity and inclusion.

They acknowledge that there is opportunity for improvement in creating accessible and inclusive travel experiences for travelers with disabilities, and that these efforts will be an ongoing journey. They recently took action by funding efforts to understand the specific needs and pain points of travelers with accessibility needs and set goals for creating an improved and equitable travel experience. To improve the experience for travelers with disabilities, Expedia Group recently:

  • Resourced a team to take a deep dive into understanding the systemic issues that drive negative experiences for travelers with accessibility needs across the travel industry as well as Expedia’s own experience.
  • Conducted a generative study on travelers with accessibility needs and caregivers, identifying their needs and wants across a broad spectrum of disability archetypes
  • Identified ways to measure the quality of experience for travelers with accessibility needs and set measurable targets to improve the traveler experience
  • Conducted partner research to understand gaps in knowledge around accessible travel to identify opportunities to raise awareness and empathy upon understanding that many poor experiences were driven by poor or missing accessibility content
  • Published a lodging partner guide as a resource for partners to provide better quality information to help travelers determine if properties and rooms are the right ones for them
  • Conducted outreach efforts for travel partners to obtain more complete accessibility attributes, which led to an increase in partners adding accessibility attribute information to their properties with more efforts planned in the future

Expedia Group discovered, for example, that Travelers not needing an accessible room were unintentionally booking an accessible room, which made those accessible rooms unavailable for those who needed one. So they implemented a change whereby if an accessible room was listed at the same price as the cheapest room, it would now appear below the cheapest room in the sort rank. This change resulted in unintentional accessible room bookings decreasing -24% compared to the last 12-month average (5.7%, down from 7.5%).

Vrbo recently launched new reporting capabilities to empower travelers to report property listings that feature inaccurate, offensive, suspicious, or fraudulent content. Travelers submitted 2,720 reports alone between December 2021 to January 2022. This capability will result in decreased inaccuracies and barriers for travelers with disabilities. Along with its focus on making the travel experience accessible, Expedia Group places much effort in ensuring that its digital properties and applications are accessible by ensuring that sites and apps can adapt to the specific tools, or assistive technologies, for which users rely. Whether a user interacts with a screen using a screen reader or has a motor impairment which inhibits the use of a mouse or touch screen, Expedia Group takes great care to ensure users have accessible digital experiences.

Adding restrictions and barriers prevents customer buy-in. A simple breakdown of the purple pound shows it is worth around £265bn to the UK economy per year. Only 10% of UK businesses have a targeted strategy for this market. It is in businesses’ best interest to want to tap into this group of customers, as accessible tourism is worth $15.3 billion.

An article by a fellow contributor Lionel Wolberger on ‘The Power of the Purple Dollar’ highlights web accessibility, a frustration many suffer when booking travel.

The scenes over the last months for the travel industry have been overwhelmingly shocking and bring home the idea that society needs to be designed for all of us for it to be inclusive. More thought is required – no one should be deprived the ability and chance to move and travel whether that be an essential part of work, access to health and education or if lucky enough the wonderful experience of adventuring to another part of the world or a family holiday. The thing is, inclusive travel and tourism is a decision or commitment – to design in “inclusion” from the beginning of the journey.

Caroline Casey

I am an award-winning social entrepreneur and founder of The Valuable 500 – a catalyst for a disability inclusion…

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