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Digital Accessibility for the Travel Industry

May 17, 2019

Now that the weather is warming up and summer vacation season is approaching, it’s the perfect time to discuss the question of accessibility for travel and tourism. The question of travelers with disabilities is too-often overlooked — yet people with disabilities represent a valuable segment of the travel industry.

According to a 2015 study by the Open Doors Organization (ODO), more than 26 million people with disabilities traveled for business or pleasure in the previous two years, taking 73 million trips. What’s more, U.S. adults with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on their own travel. Another research paper estimates that the accessible tourism industry in Europe could generate €88.6 billion ($98.8 billion USD) in revenues by 2025.

In this article, we’ll discuss the question of accessibility for travel and tourism, with a particular focus on digital and website accessibility for the travel industry.

What is accessible travel?

“Accessible travel” is the concept that all people — including people with vision, hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairments — should be able to do what they want to do and go where they want to go without facing unnecessary barriers, physical or digital, that prevent them from enjoying their travel and tourism experiences to the fullest capacity possible.

3 frequent concerns for travelers with disabilities

1. International travel

Within the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs the question of accessibility for government institutions, as well as places of public accommodation such as restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, shopping malls, hospitals, and libraries. Although it’s not an automatic guarantee of accessibility everywhere, the ADA has helped to make the U.S. one of the most disability-friendly countries in the world.

Of course, the ADA applies only within the U.S. Other countries have their own legislation in regards to physical accessibility.

In general, developed countries, large urban centers, and modern buildings are more likely to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. Less developed countries, older buildings, and more isolated destinations may have little in the way of disability-friendly infrastructure.

The lack of worldwide standards for accessibility can make the question of international travel more complicated for people with disabilities, potentially requiring in-depth research before a trip.

2. Transportation accessibility

Even traveling within the U.S., different methods of transportation may present different challenges.

For example, the U.S. Air Carrier Access Act officially prohibits commercial airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. However, according to the ODO study, roughly two-thirds of adults with disabilities say that they’ve had challenges with airlines and airports. These difficulties include poor customer service, lost or damaged wheelchairs, and the boarding and deplaning processes.

The good news, at least, is that these figures are down from the previous survey in 2005, when over 80 percent said that they had problems with air travel.

Other methods of transportation such as trains, buses, subways, and taxis may present their own issues for people with physical disabilities. For instance, only one-quarter of the subway stations in New York City contain elevators, making it difficult or impossible to use for many people with restricted mobility.

3. Building accessibility

Problems with accessibility may not end once you’ve arrived at your destination. Common travel locations such as hotels, restaurants, museums, retail stores, universities, and conference centers may be more or less friendly to people with disabilities.

Travelers should become familiar with the term “places of public accommodation,” which describes businesses that are generally open to the public (such as those listed above). Within the U.S., the ADA requires places of public accommodation to be accessible to people with disabilities.

However, note that the ADA may not apply all buildings or private clubs.

Digital accessibility for travel and tourism

Travelers with disabilities may need to do extra preparation beforehand, taking special care to ensure that the transportation, facilities, and accommodations will be accessible to them. Some travelers with disabilities may prefer to work with “accessible travel agents” who are attuned to their concerns, while others use the internet to perform their research and make bookings.

As places of public accommodation under the ADA, travel agencies, tour operators, tourist attractions, and lodgings must ensure that they are accessible to people with disabilities. What many aren’t aware of, however, is that this accessibility must extend to their digital presence as well, including websites, mobile apps, and kiosks.

Just as a hotel should have wheelchair ramps and elevators, it must also make its website accessible to people with vision, hearing, mobility, and cognitive disabilities. Digital interactions at every part of the process need to be accessible, from research and purchasing to the travel experience itself.

In a series of lawsuits, the U.S Department of Justice has repeatedly upheld the argument that websites are an extension of a business’s physical presence, and must therefore be made accessible under the ADA.

For example, in 2010 the hotel chain Hilton Worldwide reached a settlement with the DOJ in order to improve accessibility at its locations. As part of the settlement, Hilton agreed to bring its websites in compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most popular and widely used standards for website accessibility.

"The ADA protects the right of people with disabilities to stay in accessible hotel rooms, and to reserve those hotel rooms through the same convenient systems as everyone else," said Thomas E. Perez, who was Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division at the time.

Fortunately, many travel and tourism companies have been making strides to accommodate users with disabilities. In 2017, Airbnb acquired Accomable, an accessible travel startup that connects travelers with lodgings that complement their disabilities. Also in 2017, Expedia unveiled a series of enhancements to its website accessibility as part of a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind.

WCAG and digital accessibility for travel

People with disabilities may face unnecessary challenges while researching and booking travel, such as:

  • Websites and mobile apps that can’t be read by screen readers
  • Information contained only within images
  • Video and audio content without transcripts
  • Forms that can’t be filled out using assistive technologies
  • PDF files with too-small text that won’t enlarge

Making your travel and hospitality website compliant with WCAG recommendations is the best way to eliminate these issues and serve everyone.

Certain WCAG standards may be of special interest for travel and hospitality companies. For example, many tourism websites rely heavily on images and video content about a particular destination.

According to WCAG, all video and audio content must be accompanied by closed captions or transcripts. In addition, all non-decorative images must include alternative text that describes the contents of the image.

Other concerns include making your website usable by assistive technologies such as screen readers, which convert the content of a webpage into synthesized speech for people with visual disabilities.

Websites may be translated into multiple languages, or include phrases from foreign languages, in order to cater to tourists from different countries. In this case, you should label the text appropriately using the HTML lang tag, so that the screen reader can recognize which language it’s in.

Some of these adjustments may seem relatively minor but they can make a big difference for travelers with disabilities using your website.

Is your travel site accessible?

Complying with WCAG recommendations can break down the barriers preventing people with disabilities from getting the travel information they need.

When travelers with disabilities have a positive experience with your company, they’re more likely to spread the word of mouth to their family and friends, bringing in more business. By making their websites more accessible, organizations in the hospitality and travel industries can reach a wider audience and avoid the risk of expensive and time-consuming lawsuits.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides hospitality and travel accessibility audits. To learn more about accessibility online, visit the BoIA blog for the latest accessibility news and updates. Or, get started with a free website accessibility scan.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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