South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry has made great strides in recent years to be more inclusive for the needs of people with disabilities, although there is still a long road ahead to increase inclusive offerings for all types of travellers.
The observance of International Day of Disabled Persons – celebrated annually on December 3 – was first announced in 1992, by the United Nations General Assembly with two aims. To promote an understanding of disability issues and gain support for the dignity, rights and well-being of people with disabilities, and to increase awareness of benefits that could be derived from the integration of disabled people in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.
Over a billion people, or around 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability, a rate that is on the rise due to an increase in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart diseases or mental health conditions that can influence the nature and prevalence of disability.
In South Africa, with a population of around 60 million people, statistics from the 2019 General Household Survey by Statistics South Africa revealed that approximately 7.5% of the population, equating to around 4.5 million people, reported having a disability.
According to recent studies, the global spending power of people with disabilities is estimated to be around US$8 trillion annually.
Tarryn Tomlinson, founder of LiveABLE Access Consultants and Able2Travel, recently told Tourism Update that the potential market for accessible travel experiences was significant and the country was primed to tap into this niche segment.
One institution making strides to recognise and address this need is the IIE School of Hospitality and Service Management, which includes disability awareness and inclusion training in its curriculum.
Etresia Booysen, one of the senior lecturers at the school’s Johannesburg campus, said: “There is a dedicated chapter in our food and beverage management module that addresses how to interact with diverse individuals at a service level and includes guidance on accommodating people with disabilities. Training staff in the tourism industry to be aware of the needs of travellers with disabilities is crucial. This includes understanding how to assist, communicate, and provide necessary accommodations.”
Booysen also noted that improving accessibility and making tourism more disability-friendly was a global trend and many destinations, including South Africa, were working towards creating inclusive environments for all travellers.
“Hotels, lodges, B&Bs and guest houses are continually working to provide rooms and facilities that include features such as ramps, wider doorways and accessible bathrooms, and efforts are also being undertaken to make transportation more disabled-friendly, including vehicles for tours, airports with proper facilities and public transportation systems that accommodate people with mobility challenges.”
Tomlinson confirmed that South Africa had made considerable progress in offering more accessible accommodations. “Many hotels and lodges provide accessible rooms with features such as wheelchair-friendly pathways, roll-in showers and assistive devices upon request.”
However, it is not only those that have mobility challenges that must be catered for, said Booysen.
“Tourism boards and businesses are working to ensure that information about their services is available to everyone, including providing information in multiple formats, such as Braille, large print, and online resources that are compatible with screen readers.”
More still needs to be done
While a significant amount of progress has been made in making hospitality more accessible, there are still several areas that require attention and improvement to ensure inclusivity for everyone.
“Many hospitality establishments, including hotels, restaurants and attractions, need to invest in infrastructure changes to enhance accessibility, such as ramps, elevators and restrooms appropriately designed with the disabled in mind.
“In addition, staff members must be adequately trained to assist guests with diverse needs, understanding how to communicate effectively, aid when necessary, and be aware of various disabilities and their unique requirements. With the increasing reliance on digital platforms for reservations and information, it's essential to ensure that websites, apps, and online booking systems are compatible with screen readers, easy to navigate and are available in alternative formats,” said Booysen.
Tomlinson agreed that insufficient accessibility infrastructure, such as inaccessible transportation options and poorly designed public spaces, still posed significant challenges for travellers with disabilities.
She added that negative attitudes and misconceptions about disabilities often resulted in limited services and that there was still a lack of awareness among staff in the hospitality and tourism sectors.
Booysen said disabled-friendly accommodation and other tourist infrastructure staffed with well-trained teams would make guests with disabilities feel more welcome, more safe, more comfortable and more likely to return.