Photo: Man in wheelchair looks at ocean Iceland

Gathering storm: Legislation to facilitate travel for all is on the horizon.

Photograph by Nordicphotos, Alamy

By Christopher Elliott

From the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Scott Rains has kayaked in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, trekked through South Africa and India, and visited Guatemala and New Zealand. He also happens to be a quadriplegic, a fact the 56-year-old campus minister from San Jose, California, hasn’t allowed to interfere with an ambitious travel schedule.

Rains has noticed something interesting lately. Other folks his age—the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 and referred to as the baby boom generation—have begun to see things his way.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were ramps for easier access to train cars? Bigger doors to hotel bathrooms that accommodated a wheelchair? Audiovisual paging systems for the hard of hearing?

Boomers, many of whom came of age holding a protest sign, are joining forces with disability and senior groups to add muscle to the cause of increased accessibility in travel. “They don’t intend to let hip replacements and insulin shots stop them from traveling,” says Rains. “Nor will they be pandered to, stigmatized, or written off.”

Rains and his generation are part of a growing movement. Retiring 60-somethings have more time to travel, which has increased demand for accessible accommodations. The nonprofit Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), made up mostly of travel agencies catering to those with mobility issues, saw members’ hotel bookings more than double last year, a remarkable feat in a recession.

It’s been two decades since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effect. The landmark law opened travel to a new group of Americans, forcing many travel operators to ensure that transportation and lodging facilities are accessible to people with disabilities. It was a promising start, but lax enforcement over the years and an uninterested public stalled further efforts, say industry-watchers. And the travel industry hasn’t exactly embraced the idea of upgrading its facilities because of the expense. Travel companies have provided only the “absolute minimum required” for the disabled, according to Jani Nayar, SATH’s executive coordinator.

But the flood of boomers reaching their golden years could be the impetus needed to prod the government into enforcing its rules and to push the travel industry beyond ADA requirements.

There is evidence that this is happening already. In recent years the Feds have taken a more activist approach to accessibility. The Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees air and cruise lines and regulates cars and mass transit, slapped a fine of two million dollars on Delta Air Lines in February for failing to respond to complaints and provide customers with required wheelchair assistance. In 2010 the agency issued seven disability-related consent orders for airlines—the equivalent of a citation for breaking the law—for violations of a federal regulation, compared with just two in 2009.

Government regulators are also drafting new rules to address service animals at airports, captioning for in-flight entertainment systems, disability-accessible rail stations, and accommodation of wheelchairs on public transit, among other things. For example, one proposed rule would make self-service check-in kiosks more accessible to people with disabilities, adding an audio prompt for those with limited vision.

The United States often sets disability standards for the world. When American regulators required commercial aircraft to have movable armrests on at least half the aisle seats, at least one accessible lavatory on dual-aisle aircraft, and stowage space in the cabin for a folding wheelchair in certain aircraft, the European Union adopted similar regulations. America is hardly the only leader, though. In London, all Black Cabs are required to be wheelchair accessible. No such requirement exists for any major American city, although the New York State Assembly is considering a bill that would require all new cabs to be accessible in 2014.

Cranky travelers can be powerful agents of change. For years, Yosemite National Park’s waterfalls weren’t accessible to people in wheelchairs. But a steady trickle of individual complaints finally persuaded the park to act. It renovated the trail to Yosemite Falls to the tune of $13.5 million to improve wheelchair access, making the park’s most visited landmark open to all. “It took a lot of persistence on the part of advocates, but the end result was worth it,” says Candy Harrington, a disability travel expert.

Lawsuits work wonders too. Consider what happened when a group of disabled passengers sued Norwegian Cruise Line, complaining that they paid extra for handicapped-accessible cabins and the assistance of crew, and that the cruise line didn’t configure restaurants, elevators, and other facilities in accordance with federal law. (Cruise lines skirt numerous regulations by flying so-called flags of convenience of other countries, even if they cater primarily to American passengers.) The complaint went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2005 that Title III of the ADA applied to cruise ships too, forcing the industry to stop imposing surcharges on passengers with disabilities.

The beneficiaries of greater accessibility go beyond those on the disability rolls. I’m thinking of my 93-year-old grandmother (“Cookie”), who, thanks to ramps and restrooms equipped with handrails, happily traveled to Palm Springs to attend a wedding. I’m thinking of my recently retired parents, who just finished a month-long driving tour of California, New Mexico, and Arizona and have no intention of slowing down during the best years of their lives. And I’m thinking of my peripatetic family of five, in the middle of the frenzied stroller years, when those ramps and large bathrooms came in handy.

One thing is clear: The travel industry will not reform itself without a push or two. Travelers—boomers or not—need to maintain the positive pressure. Bringing the weight of market forces, government, and a little old-school activism to bear on airlines, cruise lines, and hotels may be the only way to ensure that Cookie, Mom, and Dad will be able to get from points A to B under their own steam, with independence and dignity, for years to come. I hope the boomers succeed so it doesn’t have to fall to my generation—the Gen Xers, also known as the slacker generation—to take up the cause.

Contributing editor Christopher Elliott also addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail him your story at celliott@ngs.org.

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