New Zealand

Transforming travel: Improving accessibility for wheelchair users

Permobil New Zealand works to improve accessibility in tourism sector

Air travel has revolutionised the way we explore the world, however, for travellers with disabilities, particularly those who use wheelchairs, the journey can present challenges.

Accessibility in tourism is a critical issue, with wheelchair accessibility in air travel and also in the accommodation sector being a prominent concern. 

With a goal to help travel become more accessible for all, Permobil New Zealand provides equipment and advice to ensure that wheelchair users can travel with confidence and ease. 

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Permobil New Zealand Commercial Services Director Susie Ballantyne says providing care and support for the community is central to her work.

However, she is also routinely reminded of the barriers that remain for wheelchair users across the travel and tourism sector. 

“When travelling, wheelchair users worry about the safety and reliability of their chair to arrive at their destination in one piece,” she said. “Entrusting your wheelchair to an airline is stressful – and statistics about wheelchairs being damaged in transit are alarming.

“Imagine arriving at your destination only to find that your wheelchair no longer turns on or has a bent wheel? We see photos of this regularly. And then being left vulnerable while airport staff are unsure what to do, or even move away, is very confronting.”

Away from the airport, accommodation can be another barrier to a relaxing holiday or a simple business trip for wheelchair users. 

Ms Ballantyne said that the term “accessible accommodation” in New Zealand is not uniformly defined or monitored, leading to frequent disappointments. 

“Many establishments advertise themselves as accessible,” she explained.

“However, users may arrive to discover that their power chair does not fit through doorways or under tables and benches. Many of our clients experience rooms that may be too narrow for users to wheel up beside the bed and transfer over. 

“The height of the bed can also be problematic, making it impossible for some wheelchair users to transfer onto it, forcing them to sleep in their wheelchairs. Bathrooms and showers often present additional challenges, with access widths too narrow or steps still in place. 

“Even if users manage to get into the shower, controls and showerheads are frequently out of reach from a sitting position. These are but a few of the regular examples we receive regular feedback about.”

In addition to physical barriers to accessibility, Ms Ballantyne added a lack of training and awareness from staff can also cause unnecessarily problems or uncomfortable interactions.

“Staff members often address the companion of a wheelchair user rather than the user themselves,” she said.

“They may allocate seating in a restaurant without considering the wheelchair user’s journey through a crowded room. Ordering a taxi without specifying the need for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is another common oversight. 

“Despite wheelchair users clearly explaining their needs, they often find that people do not fully listen or understand.”

However, Permobil has also seen many accommodation providers who are working to improve their accessibility offerings.

“We recently had a hotel hire a manual chair from us for a week. They put their staff in it for half a day each to move around the hotel and understand where challenges existed and where they could do more,” Ms Ballantyne said.

“Another company hired a chair and a power assist device to go through their nature track, videoing it to show it can be done.”

Looking to the future, Ms Ballantyne said that she believes demand for accessible tourism in Aotearoa will only continue to grow.

“Our goal is to ensure users do not have their travel plans disrupted or negatively affected by events or issues that can occur when moving around domestically or internationally,” she said. 

“By addressing barriers to accessibility, we hope to help pave the way for a more inclusive and accessible travel experience for wheelchair users, allowing them to explore the world with greater ease and confidence.”

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