by Nekaelia Hutchinson
When planning a vacation, do you ever take into consideration the width of the doorways or how many steps lead to your hotel of choice? Do you ever give thought to whether the elevator has audio announcements for each floor or if the fire alarm is both an audio and visual device?
Chances are, the most you consider when planning that long-awaited break from work is the weather at your destination and the cost of getting there; but for many others, a yearly vacation takes much more preparation.
However, despite the preconceptions, persons with disabilities — whether they are mobility challenged, visual or hearing impaired — are independent contributors to society and many travel, even solo. Realising the importance of catering to this niche sector, the Ministry of Tourism and the Barbados Council for the Disabled partnered to implement Fully Accessible Barbados, a programme which encourages tourism-focused properties, whether accommodation, attraction or restaurant, to cater to the needs of this thriving group.
The site www.fullyaccessiblebarbados.com, offers information on FAB accredited hotels, restaurants and sites on the island and serves as a valuable resource to persons with disabilities, both locally and abroad.
Tourism Development Officer, Maureen Bridgeman, explained: “Over the years, the Council for the Disabled has noticed that, more and more, they have been getting queries from the overseas visitors, in terms of accessibility… it got to be too much for the Council and they came to us for assistance.”
Speaking about FAB’s raison d’?™tre, Bridgeman explained: “Fully Accessible Barbados is a programme developed by the Barbados Council for the Disabled and its main purpose is to raise the quantity and the quality of the services available to persons with disabilities… It encourages a barrier-free environment for all, … including the aged, persons with disabilities, and mature customers.”
The FAB programme, which encourages inclusive tourism, offers six levels of accreditation: Independent Wheelchair User; Wheelchair Assisted; Mobility Challenged; Blind and Visually Impaired (Category 1 and 2); and Deaf or Hearing Impaired. While it would be ideal for properties to meet the standards for all, the officer said, making the grade for any of the standards was a step in the right direction.
She added that the ministry, through the hosting of an inclusive tourism symposium in 2011, and sensitisation workshops for employees this year, continued its efforts to create an environment which was welcoming for all and encouraged visitors to return.
Highlighting how crucial it was for tourism’s various stakeholders to buy into the concept, Bridgeman further explained that property owners needed to acknowledge that accessible sites benefit everyone, not just disabled persons.
She added: “I really would like them to see the importance of [accessibility] because globally there are over 650 million persons with disabilities…
“At least 55 million Americans are disabled and they earn annually in excess of one trillion dollars and at least 85 per cent of them have the economic and the physical ability to travel… We would like the matter to be taken seriously here in Barbados.”
Although the FAB collaboration between the ministry and the BCD began in 2009, with the accreditation of the first 16 properties, the latter agency officially started the endeavour years before.
Operations Manager with the council, Rose-Anna Tudor, explained that FAB, now a BCD team project, was launched in 2005.
“What was conceptualised is a programme to accredit those properties and facilities that provide accessible services for all persons,” she said. Tudor explained that the BCD, as the major organisation representing disability issues, was a key resource for disabled travellers, and it was through this contact that the decision was taken to combine the goals of the BCD with the needs of visitors to our shores.
Elaborating on the development of the project, Tudor stated that a tourism-driven economy such as ours had to “catch up with what was taking place internationally”. She revealed that the road thus far had not been easy and convincing tourism stakeholders to make changes to their properties was not a simple task. However, she remarked, tourists with disabilities could not be ignored.
“We recognised that we were dealing with a tourism plant that was surrounded by a built environment … which does not lead to easy access … [and] we knew the cultural environment we faced, it is similar to many countries in the world, [where it is felt that] persons with disabilities do not have the same needs as the rest of society. This is being proven as a big misconception,” she commented.
“In today’s globalised market, Barbados has to continue to seek to offer our guests the same quality service they are accustomed to in competitive countries. In order to keep abreast, [the tourism plant] must constantly upgrade their properties and services as well,” she observed.
Meanwhile, the programme has brought attention to an often forgotten niche of travellers — those with disabilities, who have proven that disability does not equal inability and that the activities of able-bodied persons, such as travel, are not off-limits.
Tudor highlighted the fact that while persons with disabilities face challenges while travelling, there are ways to simplify the process.
“A person who has limited or no mobility will definitely look at … minimum connecting flights… When they are on the island, [they will consider] accessible transport and hotel facilities; a blind visitor would check for facilities with unobstructed ease in the rooms … [and] Braille in the menus or on the rooms or at least raised numbers…
“[Deaf visitors would] inquire if the hotel has any interpreters or they would ask if the hotel has the telephone with the flashing light [to indicate a call]… When we go to assess a property, it is not only the access to enter the building, you have to make sure that the rooms are accessible, the restaurant and the public restrooms [too],” Tudor explained.
However, catering to those with special needs is not limited to physical provisions, as the service offered to the disabled guests by staff is just as vital. The BCD operations manager noted that even where a facility does not have ideal physical access, a welcoming attitude makes all the difference.
This sentiment was supported by Administrative Officer with the BCD, Rose-Ann Foster-Vaughn, who knows firsthand about the challenges faced by disabled persons. However, the challenges she faces from cerebral palsy have not limited her achievements and her drive to be an advocate for the disabled.
Supporting Tudor’s point, Foster-Vaughn said that when catering to disabled visitors and locals alike, mind set and the level of service were just as important as the physical plant.
“When persons see a physical disability, [they assume] this has affected the person’s intellect… Another misconception is that we do not lead a normal life and do not aspire academically, or work wise, or in our personal lives — we do not want to get married, we do not want to have children, stuff like that. And, I am hoping that this [will become] a thing of the past,” she said.
When asked about her most positive experience as a tourist, she highlighted the Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas, which she described as “out of this world”. She explained that the hotel ensured that an accessible bus met her at the airport and she was also able to rent a motor scooter to travel throughout the hotel. The ease with which any of us could become disabled was reinforced during her stay, when one of the conference participants broke her leg and had to rent a scooter as well.
“Temporary disability can befall us at anytime,” she warned.
Barbados features its own exemplars as well, Foster-Vaughn said, with facilities such as Accra Beach Hotel, Amaryllis Beach Resort, Hilton Barbados, Colony Club, Sheraton Mall, Grantley Adams International Airport, the Beach House restaurant and Brown Sugar Restaurant having achieved varying levels of access.
This was not only a positive for disabled persons but for the properties as well, which could highlight their level of accessibility and apply it as a marketing tool.
“Most persons would get their information either on the Internet or word of mouth,” Tudor noted, adding that “persons with disabilities, when they have travelled and they had a good experience once, are going to spread the word throughout their community”.
Stressing that creating an accessible environment was as easy as placing grab bars in the bathroom or providing ramp access, Tudor advised property owners who wished to make these amendments to seek guidance on how to change their plant, but also observed that some locations were unaware that they already offered some level of access.
This, she believes, reinforced the need for awareness among industry stakeholders; an effort which the BCD continues to champion through collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, the Barbados Tourism Authority and the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association.
Inclusive tourism, and catering to disabled persons, both locals and visitors, could be reduced to one simple question, Foster-Vaughn said: Can a disabled person access services and goods that are available to every citizen in Barbados or every able bodied visitor to these shores?
The answer, she said, was no, which means there is still much work to be done.
She did add, however, that creating a better environment was also the job of the disabled community, noting that “people with disabilities have to take responsibility for certain things, as with anything in life … [they have to] help people to get past the ‘cuh dear’ mentality and see you as a person that can be a productive citizen…”.
“That is the best part [of being an advocate], changing attitudes from a negative to a positive,” she added.