Accessible Travel

We need to work towards empowering disabled travellers

Accessible Travel

Despite the inevitable rewards, travelling and can prove to be a logistical nightmare from time to time. However, for those living with a disability, travel can seem even more stressful, complex and daunting.

With around 13.3 million disabled people currently living in the UK (around 20% of the population), it’s clear there are a lot of us who need specialised help when we travel. However, research by Papworth Trust has found that disabled people travel 33% less often than the general public, and it’s not hard to see why this is the case.

We recently spoke to a group of disabled people to gather their views. While some said they find asking for extra assistance “embarrassing”, others said certain hotels simply don’t cater to their specific needs. Similarly, some explained they are left unable to understand airport travel announcements and others are put off by the lack of priority toilet access should they need it.

Still, with the accessible travel market currently expanding due to increased awareness and an ageing population demographic, we are starting to see gradual improvements.  What’s more, figures suggest that while disabled people travel less often than the general public, 88% of people with a disability will take a holiday each year.

There are clear opportunities for agents, companies and hotels to get ahead of the “accessible” game, as disability travel transitions from compliance – making holiday activities accessible because the law requires it – to preference, as a result of rising demand and greater presence.

Perceptions of Accessible Travel

In the words of disability campaigner Emma Muldoon: “Accessible travel has many different meanings and doesn’t necessarily mean the same to people with different disabilities. Disability travel should of course be tailored to the individual, but with so many distinct and unique cases, it can be difficult for airports, agents, hotels and venues to anticipate the needs of every client.”

However, at its core, accessible tourism enables people with access requirements (mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive) to function independently and with dignity throughout their travel experience.

In his Travelabilty blog, Bill Forrester says accessible tourism is no longer about building ramps and accessible bathrooms. “It’s about building products and services for a larger and rapidly growing market. This is no longer a niche, but rather, a segment that is approaching 25% of total tourism spend.”

Cory Lee, Founder of Curb Free, believes accessible travel means being able to experience a destination just as much as any other visitor.

“If I can’t experience something, then being embraced with a friendly attitude is always a good thing. When I went to Iceland, not every attraction and restaurant was accessible, but it was still one of my favourite trips ever because of the people. At one restaurant, the chef came outside and helped lift my heavy powered chair over a step so that I could get inside. The Icelanders were determined to show me the best of their country, despite it not being 100% accessible and that made it an accessible destination to me.”

Accessible travel writers Rob and Bridget Obey say accessible travel is an attitude.

“It’s a desire to welcome everyone regardless of the barriers they face. Accessible travel starts with an appreciation of the difficulties individuals face and a desire to help them overcome them. Often, a simple change in attitude towards accessible travel is more effective than any physical changes you can make.”

John Morris, accessible travel advisor and founder of argues: “Travel that is truly accessible allows me to shed my disability and feel like those who surround me. It lacks barriers and roadblocks, is inclusive and equivalent, and focuses me on the tourist activity at hand, rather than the disappointment of missed opportunities.”

Understanding what the Customer Wants and Needs

If you’re organising a trip for a disabled traveller, it’s imperative to really listen to what they want and need out of a trip. This may include special transportation, medical instructions, allergies and even pain management.

Travel counsellor Mandy Tait says booking accessible travel doesn’t require special training but it does require research and planning. “The most important thing is to understand your client’s needs and not make any assumptions.”

Lynne Kirby, managing director of Enable Holidays told Travel Weekly that the key to meeting a disabled customer’s requirements is to find out exactly what the customer is looking for.

“This means establishing the customer’s level of disability, and not being afraid to ask questions to get a good understanding of the challenges they face. Disability is very wide-ranging so it will never be a situation of one size fits all.”

Types of holidays

Many disabled travellers require only minor adjustments to enjoy a holiday and all the activities entailed.

The German National Tourist Office launched a ‘Feeling Fearless’ campaign to show that activity holidays – even white water rafting or skiing – are definitely not out of the question for disabled tourists. In addition, while big cities have a lot of accessible options, countryside or seaside holiday spots are catching up. Many resorts now have wide doorways, lifts and ramps to cater to all types of disability or even mothers pushing prams.

Sandbanks Beach in Poole now has five beach-accessible wheelchairs available for a £25 deposit, while Boscombe Pier Beach has beach huts with disabled access and beach-going wheelchairs for hire.

Impairment Varies Widely

Forms of impairment vary tremendously. In the UK for example, long term illness accounts for 50% of disabled travellers, 26% are deaf or have partial hearing loss, 23% have mobility impairment, 7% are blind or partially sighted, 6% are mobility impaired and 5% have learning difficulties.

Moreover, the majority of disabilities are not visible. For example, someone may find it harder to see or hear, but may not tell you. And a disability may be temporary, for example, with someone using crutches.

Two disabled female football players from Guernsey said they are put off just getting on a plane by the perceived (and real) obstacles of travelling. “Getting up the steps is hard, even if we have the wheelchair to the steps,” one of the ladies explained.

They said they often feel “embarrassed to ask for help”.

“Getting down the aisle is extremely difficult and using the toilet facilities can be an issue”.

They also spoke of problems regarding descriptions of bathrooms in hotels. ‘Shower’ does not always adequately explain the layout. In fact, they said many hotel descriptions in general could be improved in terms of information about access.

Richard Lord, a BBC Guernsey photographer who suffers from a hearing impairment said: “The problem I have is with public and flight announcements, either at rail stations or airports. I constantly have to keep my eye on my flight should there be any last minute changes or ask fellow passengers for updates.”

Another five year old girl from Guernsey, Sara, suffers from Spina Bifida – making her doubly incontinent.

Her mother told us how problematic public toilets can be for her and her daughter when they are travelling. Nappy changing units are of course provided for babies, but not for children of Sara’s age. On board planes, her mother needs to change her catheter, bring spare clothes and carry towels just in case of an accident.

She said her ‘wish list’ for better travel would include extra luggage allowance for those people having to carry additional ‘medical’ luggage.

When we start to dig beneath the surface of those who require accessible travel we can see that while there are success stories, we still have a long way to go.

The Value of the Purple Pound

Research by VisitEngland found the accessible tourism market in England alone is worth £3 billion for overnight visits, rising to £12.4 billion if you include day trips. What’s more, the Open Doors Organisation in the US estimates that $17.3 billion is spent each year on travel by adults with disabilities. In Australia, around eight billion dollars a year is spent by travellers with disabilities and around 12% of the European market is dedicated to people with disabilities.

With an ageing global population and general increase in peoples’ desire to keep moving and see the world – regardless of circumstances – the accessible travel market is emerging at a rate of knots.

Accessible travel presents an undeniable growth opportunity for the travel industry. With more providers adapting their products or starting to specialise for individual needs, it can only grow in volume, value and quality.

What Businesses Can Do

VisitBritain said there are three aspects that all businesses need to address to provide access for all:

  • Information and marketing – providing detailed information on the accessibility of facilities and services, making this information easy to find.
  • Customer service and training – being disability-aware with the right attitude and confidence to serve all customers.
  • Physical facilities – making reasonable adjustments to buildings and facilities so that there are ways for everyone to enter and move around.

Final thoughts

The benefits of travel are endless and proven. Travel can boost your immune system, lower stress levels, improve brain health, decrease the risk of heart disease and enable you to live longer. So, let’s ensure those living with disabilities (1 in every 5 people in the UK) are also able to reap these benefits.

We need to work towards empowering disabled travellers. They need to feel confident enough to travel in the first place, their journeys need to be as stress free as possible and their holiday needs to be both enjoyable and memorable when they eventually arrive.  Key to achieving such results is thorough communication with these travellers to find out how we can improve their experiences.

Accessible travel is a complex and ever changing field. It is as much about attitudes and approaches as physical changes to services or facilities. Travel agents, hotels, activities companies, airlines and the general public are making positive steps towards a more accessible future. Indeed, the world is beginning to understand and accept the benefits of investing time, resources and capital into this vital and growing sector.

By Jessamy Baldwin

Jessamy Baldwin

“Jessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance journalist. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, health & wellbeing, entertainment and food among other topics. She has worked as an English teacher in Malawi, a news reporter in the Channel Islands, a freelance journalist and deputy editor in London and a communications advisor/columnist in New Zealand. Having travelled to over 30 countries, she is always on the look-out for her next adventure.”


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