People with disabilities spend a lot on travel: $16.6 billion annually, according to the Open Doors Organization. And this group is more likely to make travel decisions based on word-of-mouth recommendations. These two realizations led Dr. Scott Rains into a career as a travel consultant. An adventure traveler at heart, Scott has parlayed his own disability and social-activist roots into a prime gig consulting with governments and agencies worldwide on how to make tourism more inclusive to people with disabilities. He’s also a natural-born networker, helping people with disabilities pursue their travel passions through a social-networking site, Tour Watch, and his blog, Rolling Rains Report.
Q: Scott, you’re among the significant few that are making a huge difference in Inclusive Tourism. How did you come into this field?
A: I transitioned from working in universities, where I studied Theology to the doctorate level, to educating underserved populations in my community in the use of computer technology. Travel was one of the first fields to take advantage of the Net. I followed my dual interests – travel and community service — to found the Rolling Rains Report in 2004 and the Tour Watch [social-networking] forum in 2007. Soon after that the University of California system made me a resident scholar. Since then, several countries, such as Australia, India and Brazil, have hired me as a consultant or invited me as a visiting journalist.
Q: What were some of your initial realizations about tourism for people with disabilities?
A: First of all, I had to rely on my own experience of travel. That spans a few decades now, since I was paralyzed in 1972 [at age 18] and went to Brazil as an exchange student three years later. In the early years, just showing up in many parts of the world meant that you were a celebrity. Unless I ran into absolute refusal, people were enthusiastic about accommodating my needs. It was a new challenge, and a novelty. Over the years, my accumulated knowledge of best practices and architectural designs, as well as human-rights legislation, has made travel, for me, a little more predictable and less Wild West. With the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the obligation to provide safe appropriate transportation and accommodation for travelers with disabilities is no longer a matter of legal debate.
Q: You just returned from a month-long trip to South Africa, where you were hired to evaluate the tourism industry. What did you learn?
A: South Africa has excellent civil rights legislation to eliminate the vestiges of apartheid-like thinking that infected social attitudes toward people with disabilities. Disabled activists and our organizations continue to press that agenda. I also learned that a [sense of uneasiness] hangs over the country. The event that will be either a blessing or a curse — depending on how it is handled — is the upcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Many people mistakenly think that accessibility will sort of ‘just happen’ when a major sporting organization backs an event. In reality, it takes an intense lobbying and educational campaign to encourage these organizations not to cut costs on issues of accessibility and to build an infrastructure for inclusive tourism.
Q: Is it really possible to travel through this region — and go on safari — while you’re in a wheelchair?
A: Yes! I took two safaris that included nearly a dozen national parks and private game reserves. Roads were sometimes rough, but that’s no different than some roads I’ve been on in the U.S. and in Europe. Several South African tour operators are world renowned: Epic-Enabled, Endeavour and Flamingo Tours each has more than a decade of experience taking people with the most severe disabilities on holiday and safari. New specialized operations are emerging, too. There’s Access 2 Africa Safaris in [KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa] and Mandy Rapson’s new program at African Encounter.
Q: You often speak about travel through the lens of universal design, which is a framework for the design of places to be navigable by the widest range of people, including the disabled. How does one design their destination to be accessible/inclusive, especially in an older area like Europe?
A: What that means is that people with disabilities need to be imagined as being a part of a society and its economy from before the first pen goes to the architect’s drawing pad. We say to international sports organizations: ‘Inclusion means more than seating inside soccer stadiums. It means attention to the full customer experience of travelers with disabilities and quality management through the whole tourism supply chain. Individual accessible bits need to be integrated into a whole, seamlessly convenient product involving new airport transit systems, theaters, hotels, and hiring practices.
Q: What about on a more practical level?
A: I have heard of collapsible ramps in Europe that mimic the facades of heritage buildings as new thinking is directed at an age-old problem. Elsewhere, there’s the upcoming 2010 South African Cup, the 2014 Brazilian World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in India. This will be the first World Cup held in Africa. It will be the largest sporting event ever held on that continent, as the Olympics have yet to visit Africa. The world will be watching South Africa.
Q: What other countries are making inroads to inclusive tourism?
A: China has opened up a bit as a result of the 2008 Summer Olympics. As the population continues to age, accessibility will become increasingly important in determining a destination’s popularity. Japan was one of the first nations to realize this and act on it. Japan has whole cities experimenting with combining cultural preservation and universal design, such as in Takayama City. In India, the ministry of tourism has taken a trend-setting stand on requiring its World Heritage sites to be inclusive. Greece made the Acropolis wheelchair-accessible following the 2004 Summer Paralympics. Ecuador has just constructed wheelchair access to the Galapagos Islands, and the thermal hot springs resort town on Banos, also in Ecuador, is becoming more inclusive.
Q: What’s the most adventurous vacation you’ve taken?
A: Before I was paralyzed I canoed a 72-mile chain of lakes. I spent weeks at a time hiking the Cascade Crest Trail in Washington, and I backpacked the mountains of Guatemala during a civil war, which I don’t recommend. Since adopting a wheelchair, I live by the motto. ‘All travel is adventure travel when you have a disability!’
Q: What’s your favorite destination?
A: I have a special place in my heart for Brazil having been an exchange student there twice. The first time, I was able to travel to the border of Argentina to see the breathtaking Iguaçu Falls. The second time, because the campus was completely inaccessible, I had to give up a 15-month scholarship to study at the University of Sao Paulo. Another favorite spot is Thailand. Its good climate, variety of sites both developed and undeveloped, and sense of hospitality makes it very appealing. Still, I often tell people that my favorite destination is the next one I get to go to!