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Karin Coetzee

30 June 2020

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Universal Access for Special Needs

FREEDOM of movement is more important than freedom of speech or freedom of political association for a signifi cant portion of our society. Their primary concern is access to a pavement, supermarket, restaurant or toilet for the basic necessities of living. One of their most daunting tasks is to organise a trip away from home, whether it is for work, holiday or family events.

Dr Scott Raines, an American researcher and travel writer once said “Access might be suffi cient for survival. Only inclusion allows the joy of participation.”

People with special needs include senior citizens, junior citizens in baby strollers, people with visual and hearing impairments as well as people using mobility devices such as crutches, walking aids and wheelchairs. They all want to enjoy a holiday and be included in all the available activities

Functional accessibility is needed for every person to be included in our society and experience life with dignity. Unfortunately we still create too many barriers which prevent people from accessing pavements, buildings, restaurants, outdoor facilities, beach walkways etc. because we have not adopted the concept of Universal Design. “Universal Design is a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. It is not a design style but an orientation to any design process that starts with a responsibility to the experience of the user.”

My knowledge and insight as an Occupational therapist with 34 yrs experience in rehabilitation led me to the establishment of a South African data base for Inclusive Tourism to assist people with special needs. Then an unfortunate skiing accident left me with a broken knee and wheelchair bound for 3 months which further enlightened me to the daunting tasks that I had to face on a daily basis.

The Disabled Travel website lists accommodation establishments and facilities, including photographs and reliable information to assist people with special needs in making an informed decision.

Many tourism establishments advertise themselves as being disabled or wheelchair friendly, but unfortunately they do not comply by international standards or the National Building regulations. Only 22,7 % of the more than 1000 accommodation establishments which were evaluated, was found to be wheelchair accessible in the bathrooms to some degree. A guest who booked in at an “accessible” guest house had to use the toilet in the Wimpy restaurant in town because there was no access to his bathroom. There is an erroneous perception that “wheelchair friendly” means access to the bedroom only and neither the bathroom, dining room or other facilities are considered when they advertise. Therefore it is extremely diffi cult for people with special needs to fi nd suitable accommodation or trust the information on the websites

I started travelling around the country, visiting establishments and taking photographs and measurements to build the data base with reliable information. If it is not possible to make a personal visit, I send a list of required pictures and measurements to an establishment to complete and then follow up with telephonic evaluation.

It is very important to educate and enlighten the tourism industry and I strive to create more awareness whenever I visit an establishment. It is so much easier and less expensive when the concept of universal design is used for a bathroom to accommodate the needs of every possible guest. Guest houses or hotels are welcome to contact me for assistance and advice to make changes to existing facilities by sending me photographs of a bathroom. I will gladly send them the specifi cations and make a drawing on their photograph of possible recommendations.

Universal design and inclusive tourism equally benefi t both senior citizens and people with disabilities. Dr Raines stated that Accessibility is a revenue source, not an expense. Many people of retirement age want to visit other countries and they often have some mobility or health impediments.

South Africa is not known worldwide as a disabled –friendly tourism destination and we should strive to change that perception and claim our share of that untapped, niche market. Cape Town, the most popular destination in the country has less than 25 guest houses which are wheelchair accessible.

Disabled Travel often receive requests from overseas travelers with disabilities to assist them in fi nding suitable accommodation and most of them prefer guest houses to hotels. If we do not have a suitable listing on the website, we will source the required facilities for them. There is a huge shortage of guest houses in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban for guests who want to visit medical facilities, attend sport or recreational events and family functions or participate in business opportunities.

According to Dr Raines Inclusive Tourism is the systematic application of Universal Design by the travel and hospitality industry at every stage of its product, service, and policy life cycle. So why do we not have any adequate transport options for people with special needs? They cannot hire a suitable vehicle at an airport to accommodate a person sitting in a wheelchair and only a few private contractors are available, but at a very high cost. No travelling between cities is possible in a train or passenger bus and the majority of game drive vehicles cannot accommodate a guest sitting in a wheelchair.

We want our visitors to come and enjoy everything that our beautiful country has to offer and we should strive to make everyone feel welcome and included.

Disabled Travel will gladly assist any establishment with advice and information to promote universal design and inclusive tourism. Please contact us by email