17 JUN 2014: The desire to travel doesn’t become disabled for someone with special needs. They want and have the right, just like any able-bodied person, to be awestruck by the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China.
Unfortunately there is an ignorance and general lack of willingness amongst those responsible for putting the proper infrastructure in place to make travel more accessible. One Canadian travel agent is trying to change that and make travel accessible to all no matter what the disability.
We all love to travel. But very few inroads have been made the past few decades even though the number of people with special needs has increased dramatically and will only continue with our aging population.
I always shake my head when I see on a website or in promotional material that a hotel is accessible. Perhaps one room might be but what about all the other rooms. God forbid the fully accessible room is already booked.
It is a challenge for travellers with a special needs to know where they can turn if they want to book their business or leisure travel and have the confidence there won’t be any issues if they have any physical or mental limitations.
Fortunately there are some agents out there who service this niche market – though many more agents are needed. One agent who specializes in handling travel for those with special needs is Tarita Davenock, President of Tarita’s Travel Connections and a home based agent with Travel Professionals International (TPI). Davenock, based in Nanaimo, British Columbia comes about her role helping travellers with disabilities honestly, passionately and with first-hand experience.
Life was rolling along nicely for Davenock with two BA degrees to her credit, candidate for a Master’s Degree and working as social worker with a specialty in helping children and adults with special needs. Then at age 29 her dream life was shattered – a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Rather than retreat from life she shook it up, looked inward and refocused. Davenock always had a life-long passion for travel and other cultures – now it was time to put that passion into a new career.
In 1999 she joined CruisePlus as a travel consultant and worked there until 2012 before breaking out on her own with Tarita’s Travel Connections and specializing in travellers with disabilities and special needs.
Her company motto is “Travel should be inclusive and not exclusive.” She personally doesn’t like the word ‘disabled’. Instead Davenock prefers, ‘difabled’. “We can still perform the task however it just requires a little tweaking,” explains Davenock. She can still walk limited distances so longer walks require a wheelchair.
How does she help travellers?
“I have made strategic connections worldwide who offer accessible vacations; albeit a safari, cruise, a trip through Israel, Venice, the Pyramids or the great surf in Hawaii. I can arrange all the “tweaking” for them to ensure their vacation is accessible. I live with a disability and know how travel can be daunting.”
Making clients feel confident their needs will be met is a major part of her role as a Certified Special Needs Travel Advocate.
“In many ways there is a bit of relief and ease when they (clients) book their holiday as I know what questions to ask when planning their vacation,” says Davenock. “Do they need a sharps container, raised toilet seat, grab bars, bag of protective undergarments, etc.”
Davenock minces no words in terms of suppliers getting on board and recognizing ‘difabled’ travellers as she puts it. “I have traveled and at times the industry’s idea of accessible is polar opposite to what someone in a wheelchair deems accessible. It’s high time that someone in a wheelchair, with a cane, or a Seeing Eye dog was in a supplier’s brochure.”
She cites the top three pet peeves for those who travel with disabilities: “Ignorance, pity and excuses.”
Disabled travelers just want to experience the sights, sounds, smells and culture like everyone else and have the accessibility to do that without fuss or someone taking pity on them.
Canada, Davenock says, compares fairly well against other destinations that make travel accessible but feels we should be promoting more inbound travel for disabled travelers. Europe does a good job and Copenhagen in particular has been voted by some as the most accessible destination.
Her dream would be to see full inclusion and accessibility within the industry from all swimming pools having lifts for those in wheelchairs, beach resorts having equipment, legislating all federal and provincial parks and RV parks in being accessible and completely accessible restaurants.
Davenock isn’t just altruistic on why she services travellers with special needs. Frankly it makes good business and she suggests it makes sense for other agents to service this niche market. With the travel happy baby boomers aging and the percentage of people who have some form of disability it will evolve beyond being just a niche market but a sizable travel market.
The notion all travelers with disabilities are poor is something that irritates Davenock.
“Get rid of the stigma that seems to go along with having a disability; not all are poor,” states Davenock. “There are many ‘disabled’ travelers that have the time, income and desire to travel. When we envision the word disabled a wheelchair is the first image formed in our minds however there are many invisible disabilities.”
Her ultimate goal besides full accessibility? To know that the phrase, “I can’t go there,” has been changed to “I went there.” Bucket lists are not just for the able-bodied.
We can only hope the industry realizes there needs to be major changes and it starts with developing the infrastructure required and acknowledgement of this huge market segment. It just makes good business sense. These travellers don’t want your pity – they just want to experience the world of travel like everyone else.
Let’s make it happen. Below are some useful websites and resources from both government and private organizations on travelers with special needs.