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December 2005

A travel trend on the horizon

Scott Rains
The Rolling Rains Report

Cartoon of Scott's travel adventures: Absailing down a cliff in his wheelchair

Universal design

The goal of Universal Design is to create all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.

I am quadriplegic and I have a dream.

It is a dream as noble as the impetus behind the Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela; as insistent as the beckoning of Mecca to the haji; as deep as the desire to journey to Jerusalem; as all-encompassing as the attraction of Kumba Mela in India. It is the dream of travel.

Travel, even the dream of travel, speaks to the imagination. This past year demonstrated once again that imagination drives the engines of commerce even as it fuels the spirits of pilgrims, artists, and designers. Travel for people with disabilities, a long-deferred dream, now receives global attention at a level that promises to make it economically sustainable. One rediscovered philosophy of design is making this transformation possible.

Sheikh Mohammed has announced a goal of attracting three million travelers with disabilities to ultra-modern Dubailand even while Japan has quietly transformed Takayama City into a barrier-free destination of choice that retains the charm of this city steeped in tradition. Tasmania saw the launch of an island-encompassing circuit of fully accessible lodgings known as the Devil's Playground. Sun City International Community takes the trend even further. They offer residents of their residences for seniors in China the opportunity to travel to their senior properties outside the country on a time-share basis.

In the past year, as business gave voice to the dream that travel would be barrier-free and set in motion a renaissance of design, I have been carried along on a pilgrimage to destinations not of my own choosing but still deeply satisfying and beneficial.

Conferences on travel and disability sprung up simultaneously over the past twelve months on every continent but Antarctica. In fact, the popularity of the topic created several dilemmas in my personal travel itinerary that might seem familiar to the frequent traveler.

By choosing to work with students from Rhode Island School of Design to evaluate their human-centered design for a wheelchair-accessible eco-resort in the Caribbean I was unable to accept an invitation to speak at Brazil's first national conference on barrier free tourism and hospitality outside Porto Alegre. While launching the Asia Pacific Accessible Travel League at the First International Conference on Accessible Travel in Taipei, Taiwan I was able to attend neither the European Union's conference on universally usable travel information sponsored by the One-Stop Shop for Accessible Tourism in Europe (OSSATE) in London nor the Culture for All conference in Berlin. As Mexico held a national conference on tourism without barriers in Mazatlan, I was on the schedule at the Third International Conference on Peace Through Tourism in Pattaya, Thailand as a panelist on travel and Universal Design.

It is that final concept Universal Design that runs like a grand protagonist through this global drama of the emergence of barrier-free travel as a business objective. Businesses have rediscovered a secret of Universal Design's utility as a roadmap to lifelong social participation by children, people with disabilities, and seniors. It creates as well as satisfies a new customer base. It allows for business models that are at once economically sustainable and socially beneficial.

Universal Design is a set of seven principles distilled from the shared dream of an earlier era. During the civil rights movement of the 1950's, 60's, and 70's Universal Design evolved to express the legitimate political objectives of the disability community in the fields of design, product manufacture, and construction. Architects, designers, educators, and other professionals, many with disabilities, enumerated the following design standards in order to guide the process of creating human-centered places, products, and policies that respect the role of imagination in design:

  1. Equitable use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users
  2. Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities
  3. Simple, intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level
  4. Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities
  5. Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions
  6. Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility

The goal of Universal Design is to create all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation. Universal Design is the vision, tended by the community of those with disabilities themselves, that stands behind the various partial solutions proposed in national legislation around the world.

A generation ago the disability community advanced the veiled petition, "Can you make this place or product accessible?" Universal Design poses to the world hard-nosed business challenge, "Given the business case for serving this market and knowing the effectiveness of multiple business models and technical solutions for doing so, how are you able to justify the business case for intentionally limiting your customer base by not using Universal Design?"

The travel and hospitality industry needs Universal Design if it is to capture that 15% 20% of the population that has a disability. It must act quickly to be prepared for increase in that percentage brought on by the retirement of the Baby Boomers a generation that will experience increasing disability year by year but is likely never to self-identify as disabled.

Respecting this generational aversion to identifying oneself as a person with a disability is a key factor that will separate the profitable from the unsustainable travel product.

Those of us with decades of experience negotiating systems of social and physical exclusion have developed strategies for success and reservoirs of patience that are not immediately available to those who are recently disabled. Conversely, those who have lived satisfying and successful lives using the full repertoire of their stature, senses, and cognitive abilities will not easily relinquish the status they once enjoyed. In other words, previously non-disabled Boomers who have amassed more wealth and more power than their peers who have fought for disability rights over the past fifty years will demand full inclusion as a birthright with all the fervor that comes from privilege or they will take their wealth to a competitor as sophisticated consumers.

There is another factor that will figure into the success of those who capture the disabled and future senior niche in travel. Close observers of Universal Design and the senior market recognize the difference between purely accessible products and universally designed products as the difference between "sterile" and "style". Sterile may be effective in a laboratory or a hospital but style wins in the marketplace.

The vision of Universal Design turns the definition of "normal" upside down around the world. Advocates explain that the community of those with disabilities is the largest "minority group" in the world; will continue to grow as a percentage of the population as individuals live longer; and, in countries where legislation has allowed people with disabilities access to employment, is a community with a significant amount of disposable income as well as a desire to travel.

The vision is not one of "business as usual" but it does offer those who prepare the promise of unusually good business.

Scott Rains

About the author

Scott Rains is Director of Programs/Services SeniorNet and received a commendation for Commitment to Principles of Cultural Diversity from Santa Clara University. He is a high profile advocate and author on travel and Universal Design, and regularly documents his experiences as editor of the Rolling Rains Report.

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