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05/19/2022

Improve Accessibility for Travelers with Disabilities

All people want to enjoy the fun and wonder that comes with traveling but those with disabilities all too often have severe obstacles they must hurdle first.
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Wheelchair-bound persons on a hike, near a lake
Photo Credit: Wheel the World

More than 14.5 million Americans with disabilities travel at least once a year, spending an estimated $23 billion annually on travel. Yet this huge audience is largely overlooked by tourism providers. Finding accurate and detailed accessibility information online can be challenging, and after booking, many travelers with disabilities often arrive at their destination to find an experience completely different than the one described online. An error in just one detail can mean the difference between a wonderful trip and one that is completely ruined.

It behooves hotel operators to take actionable steps to improve their accessible offerings and online information. Choosing to ignore this audience may be more costly than just lost revenue from bookings. Travel companies that do not comply with ADA guidelines may be exposed to litigation. Between 2013 and 2021, ADA Title III lawsuits for disability-based discrimination in public and commercial facilities increased 320%, and earlier this year, the Department of Justice expanded ADA requirements to apply to all goods and services offered by businesses, including those offered online.

At Wheel the World, our mission to make the world more accessible is, in part, inspired by my personal experiences as a person with disabilities. After I was paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager, I knew that my dreams of travel and exploration would become more difficult. In 2016, with the support of friends, including my co-founder Camilo Navarro, I became the first person to complete one of the most rugged treks in Patagonia at Torres del Paine National Park in Chile by wheelchair. By documenting and sharing our story, other people with disabilities began to reach out to see if they could recreate the excursion, and we began working with local accommodations, tour operators and equipment rental companies to make it happen.

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Man in a special wheelchair for swimming
Photo credit: Wheel the World

In 2018, Wheel the World was founded to break down barriers to travel experiences, because while we saw it was possible to accomplish an incredible hike in Patagonia, we also saw how complicated it was to get the important information needed to make travel safe and enjoyable for people with disabilities and their companions even for short trips to nearby destinations.

Our company’s Accessibility Mapping System (AMS) is a technology solution that crowdsources and aggregates accessible travel experiences, destinations and accommodations. Through Wheel the World’s user-friendly interface, AMS matches travel experiences compatible with users’ unique travel aspirations and accessibility needs.

We work with a team of “mappers” around the globe to record real-time information on more than 200 data points, such as wheelchair accessibility, inclusive staff training, transportation logistics, braille signage availability, ramp access, adaptive equipment requirements, bed height, room measurements and more. From these data points, Wheel the World has compiled almost 1,000 up-to-date accessibility listings with the help of over 200 mappers for 125 destinations across 72 countries.

Hotel managers and rental property owners are invited to submit their accessibility information for free via WheelTheWorld.com or our mobile app to become a Wheel the World Partner. The platform allows operators to manage the accessibility data of their property in an organized, accurate and legitimate way. It also gives clients the confidence to book your property knowing that the accessibility information is trustworthy and they can embark on their trip without worry. For a small fee, hotels and accommodations can also receive our proprietary certification and training, which includes a site inspection by a Wheel the World team member and a customized accessibility report to indicate areas for improvement.

I have experienced firsthand the disappointment of arriving after a long journey to find the accessible hotel room I booked was given away, that the entrance to a hotel had steps and no ramp, and that the width of the door was too small for my wheelchair. My hope is that on this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, operators will consider the meaningful impact that improving their accessibility offerings and information can have on their business and on the lives of travelers with disabilities.

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Woman in wheelchair on a rope bridge
Photo credit: Wheel the World
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Alvaro Silberstein, CEO of Wheel the World
Alvaro Silberstein, co-founder, Wheel the World

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alvaro Silberstein is co-founder of Wheel the World, an online marketplace for people with disabilities and seniors to book accessible trips. A Chilean entrepreneur, public speaker and passionate disability advocate, he created the company in 2018 to inspire millions of people to explore the world without limits. With a background in management consulting for leading Latin American companies, Silberstein works closely with businesses to offer fully accessible travel experiences making it possible for people with disabilities to enjoy destinations such as Machu Picchu, Easter Island and Patagonia. Silberstein has also served as an advisor to the Chilean government for the development of the national strategy for the social inclusion of people with disabilities in Chile. He received his undergraduate degree in information technology engineering from Universidad Católica de Chile and has an MBA from the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business.