Publicado por: Ricardo Shimosakai | 26/12/2012

Poor accessibility for disabled deters tourists


Stumbling block. Members of Seacat 2012 venturing out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to check some of the sights in the city. Poor accessibility for the disabled deters tourists from visiting our country. — Chin Mui YoonStumbling block. Members of Seacat 2012 venturing out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to check some of the sights in the city. Poor accessibility for the disabled deters tourists from visiting our country. — Chin Mui Yoon

Accessible tourism benefits more than just the disabled and the elderly in our rapidly aging society. It provides a win-win scenario for everyone.

SOCORRO Jabor was looking forward to a wonderful holiday in Singapore with her husband. She wanted to celebrate her birthday in March, differently this year.

However, upon arriving at Singapore’s Changi Airport, the couple waited one hour for a wheelchair lift before they were told to pay 11,000 pesos (RM820) for its use. Jabor refused to pay the extra money, and crawled down the airplane stairs to the tarmac where her husband waited with her wheelchair.

“My husband also has spinal injuries and it was against the (Cebu Pacific) airlines staff regulations to carry me,” explained Jabor, president of the Philippine Paralympic Sports & Development Inc.

“My travel agent had already contacted the airlines before my trip, to inform them that a disabled person would be on aboard. So why do I need to pay so much more just because I am disabled?”

Jabor also had to pay double the normal hotel room rates, for a disabled-friendly room. Her experiences underscore the unnecessary hassles and barriers the disabled face when travelling. This discourages many of them from venturing abroad, or travelling within their own country.

Accessible travel is no longer regarded as a small market. It is growing in importance but many cities and countries still lack the infrastructure and facilities to cater to this market.

The first South-East Asian Conference on Accessible Travel (Seacat 2012) was held in Kuala Lumpur last weekend. More than 200 participants from various countries such as China, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Nepal, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, attended the conference.

The Prime Minister’s Department gave a grant of RM150,000 to organise the event but there was no representative from the Tourism Ministry throughout the three-day event.

Last Sunday, a convoy of over 400 people, including conference delegates, wheelchair users and volunteers, took a five-hour trip on the KL Monorail and LRT to check out some of the sights from Berjaya Times Square to Suria KLCC.

The group was left disappointed, as there was no disabled access connecting the KLCC LRT station to the mall. The lone folded stairlift was out of order; it has been so for weeks although the disabled community had brought the matter to the attention of the authorities.

And so the group detoured to the Ampang Park LRT station, where the convoy made its way by road to Kuala Lumpur’s premier tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the steep curbs with narrow ramps were littered with broken pavement tiles, potholes and piles of earth left behind by roadworks. This made access a problem, even for non-wheelchair users.

Frustrated with the poor access and sapped of energy by the searing midday sun, most abandoned their plans to check out the newly opened KLCC-Bukit Bintang elevated walkway which leads to the Pavilion mall. This experience is typical of the difficulties the disabled encounter in moving around Kuala Lumpur.

“People with disabilities and the elderly who have mobility impairment, desire to travel just like the rest of the population,” said conference organiser Sia Siew Chin, executive director of Beautiful Gate Foundation for the Disabled.

“For the able-bodied, a broken-down lift is an inconvenience; for us, it is a barrier. We, too, desire the freedom to move around independently. Barrier-free access caters not just to the disabled but also the elderly and those with temporary disabilities.

“Like any parent, I want my children to enjoy their childhood and go on holidays with their parents. Last year, we went to Hong Kong with a group of 22 which included 14 wheelchair-users. It was a memorable holiday. The city is so accessible, from our pick-up at the airport to our hotel rooms and tourist spots.”

At the conference, an interim committee was formed for an Asia Pacific Network on Accessible Travel, made up of members from various countries.

Independent living

Hong Kong’s disabled-friendly infrastructure and facilities make it a popular holiday destination for the disabled. —Sia Siew Chin

Hong Kong’s disabled-friendly infrastructure and facilities make it a popular holiday destination for the disabled. —Sia Siew Chin

“Every individual has the right to independent living, inclusive education, and access to information, the environment and social systems,” said Judy Wee, vice-president of Singapore’s Disabled Person’s Association and a resource person with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap).

“There are about one billion people with disabilities worldwide; this is about 15% of the world’s population. This makes it the largest minority group in the world. Why are we ignoring this group?

Ivor Ambrose, managing director of the European Network for Accessible tourism, which is an association of 200 organisations from 30 European nations, said: “Tourism opens the door for every visitor to experience other cultures. This helps develop our understanding and contributes to our common humanity. People who have disabilities or who experience access problems cannot be denied this right. To be a tourist is everyone’s right.

“Tourism development and local community development must go hand-in-hand. By making tourism destinations and services accessible to visitors with disabilities, seniors, and families, we are also contributing to an improved quality of life for local residents.”

Joseph Kwan, an architect and current chairman of the Rehabilitation International Commission on Technology and Accessibility, pointed out that vacations for people with disabilities could cost between 30% and 200% more than holidays for the non-disabled.

“The first phase on achieving inclusive tourism is to increase awareness; we need the commitment of tourism authorities to make all future tourism projects accessible and economically sustainable,” said Kwan.

Law King Kiew, secretary-general of Society of the Chinese Disabled Persons Malaysia, recalled how a front desk staff at a hotel in Malacca turned her away when she entered the door.

“She said: ‘We have no rooms for the disabled’,” Law recounted.

“Malaysia made huge announcements when we became a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 30 clearly states that the disabled should enjoy access to places such as theatres, museums, cinemas, libraries, monuments and sites of national cultural importance,” said Yam Tong Woo, chief operating officer of the Centre on Advocacy, Research and Empowerment of the Blind, which was set up by the National Council of the Blind Malaysia.

“Yet we lack ramps for wheelchairs, tactile walkways, audio descriptions or headsets for the blind to help them understand what they can’t see. We will be having a Visit Malaysia Year 2013; are we not welcoming the disabled to our beautiful country?”

European Network for Accessible Tourism president Lilian Müller highlighted the urgency to make tourism accessible.

“Enabling access to tourism is our priority. Accessible tourism is not a niche market; it’s a demographic explosion and we will all feel the effects. We have to improve access now,” she said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s first World Report on Disability 2011 shows that there are over one billion people living with some form of disability. In the years ahead, disability will be an even greater concern due to ageing populations and the global rise in chronic health conditions.

Valuable market

Chris Veitch, a university lecturer and tourism consultant in Britain, explained that the accessible tourism market had been ignored for so long because the disabled and elderly were not seen as a valuable market by the tourism sector.

“There is an increasing number of older travellers. Travel is part of senior lifestyle,” said Veitch. “These are not the old people we knew 30 years ago. They aspire to do more and go to new places in their old age. The baby-boomer generation is changing the perception of customers with disabilities. Innovative businesses are gearing up to meet the needs of seniors, disabled visitors, families and an increasingly diverse market.”

There is huge economic potential for accessible tourism in South-East Asia in terms of information, infrastructure, transportation, services and facilities.

“But what we have seen is a clear case of ‘market failure’ in which the public sector and entrepreneurs have failed to provide what potential visitors need. Customers do not come simply because they can’t. This spells economic loss for the country,” said Veitch.

Dr Sandra Rhodda, director of Access Tourism New Zealand, highlighted a lack of even basic information while searching for accessible travel and hotels in Kuala Lumpur.

“For the various types of disabilities, what is needed are independent assessments and descriptions of transport available, accessible routes to the different destinations, entrances, local terrains and accessible toilets,” said Rhodda.

“Like any first-time visitor to Malaysia, I googled for information. There is a lack of accurate, sufficient or detailed information. Disabled tourists will not risk going to Malaysia if they cannot find any information. The Tourism Malaysia official website is difficult to navigate and has no information on accessible travel. Most websites give general overviews and point out that it is not easy to travel with a disability here. Apparently there isn’t any travel agency that offers accessible travel either.”

On comparison, an “Inclusive London” website that was launched last March by the Greater London Authority has received 12 million hits so far.

“We are all reluctant to go somewhere if we don’t know what to expect when we get there. This can be doubly so for a person with disabilities – are their access needs going to be met?” asked Dr Rhodda.

Veitch pointed out that the US accessible tourism market is worth US$13.5bil according to the HarrisMarket Research 2002 and 2005, while the European accessible tourism market is ‚80bil. The economic benefits to inclusive tourism is clearly obvious.

Since the Equality Act was introduced in Britain in 2010, London’s famous double-decker buses now have drop-down ramps to accommodate wheelchairs. Many Underground stations have disabled-friendly features now although many of the 19th century stations were not built for accessibility.

“It is a slow and incremental change. What is key is changing people’s attitudes,” said Veitch.

“While it is not possible to quantify how much of Britain is barrier-free, it is against the law to discriminate a person because of any disability. Businesses are not allowed to charge extra, and must demonstrate they have made reasonable changes to be as inclusive as possible. Heritage places have to be as accessible as possible. Even nature-based attractions can become accessible. In France, there are tracking on beaches; they can go scuba diving. A forest may not be wheelchair accessible, but it can make a great sensory path for the visually impaired.

“You can’t ignore this trend. If governments don’t start now, they will find themselves left behind as trends change.”

Kwan, from Rehabilitation International, said the disabled community in Hong Kong played a very active role in working with the government to make accessibility a reality.

“But it takes government and political willpower; the government must have a desire to do this or you’ll keep running into a brick wall,” said Kwan.

“Accessible tourism generates economic benefits to the entire community and country. You are also building up infrastructure that benefits the local community. A universal design benefits everyone – children, mothers pushing prams, older persons, those who are visually and hearing impaired, and wheelchair users. One system is good for everyone.”

“We’d need certain legislations as voluntary is not going to work. Britain, the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore all have laws that prevent discrimination against persons with disabilities. This is a global trend.”

Hong Kong’s earliest buses which catered to the disabled started running in 1978. The fleet of bright yellow Rebabus are fitted with ISO grade wheelchair securing systems and cater to an average of 700,000 users a year, most of whom are locals.

The Easy Access Bus which was introduced in 2001 to send the elderly to public hospitals or clinics, serves over 150,000 patients every year.

“We see a worldwide trend of aging populations. With a rapidly aging society, we are not preparing accessibility for only the disabled; we are also preparing for the future when each one of us will grow old and find ourselves with mobility difficulties,” said Rex Luk, director of Accessible Transport and Travel for the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation. Luk oversees three accessible vehicle fleets with over 170 vehicles.

Hong Kong’s public transportation system, including the MTR, is equipped for hearing, visual and mobility impaired travellers. Websites include videos shot by wheelchair users themselves, showing the exact terrain and slope gradients they would need to travel across from the bus or car drop-off stations all the way to the tourist site itself.

There are many challenges in store for accessible travel in South-East Asia. Lack of continuity in the travel chain is a barrier at some point.

Visibility

Judy Wee recalled how her holiday abroad was abruptly cut short during transit when the second airline refused to allow her to board, citing regulations that did not permit her to travel alone.

“The disabled do not need to hold protests or marches. Just be out there so that society can see what your needs are,” said Jacky Hsu, secretary-general for Taiwan Access For All Association.

“We organise Let’s Take A Walk campaigns to increase visibility of the disabled. Every month we pick a route we’d like to go and everyone participates. Last year we joined a public Lantern Festival in Taipei. There were many barriers like parked motorbikes, benches, flower pots and signages, which prevented access to the venue. Many (able-bodied) participants came to assist us and tried to figure out how to get around the barriers.

“Not too long after that, all the barriers were removed. So we don’t have to protest. We just need to get out there so that our countrymen can see the barriers for the disabled.

“The disabled just want to be able to get around independently,” added Hsu.

Source: testar online


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