When I started writing about accessible travel almost 25 years ago, I was definitely the odd duck in the pond. I remember approaching tourism reps and explaining my niche — travel for wheelchair-users and slow walkers. Usually the response was a polite smile, a nod, a deafening silence or the ever so popular, “we have accessible restrooms in our visitor center” reply.
While I certainly don’t long for those days, it seems that things have come full circle today, and now accessible travel is the cool niche. And although this visibility is a good thing, it is a double-edged sword. Everyone wants accessible travel content, but the majority of folks don’t want to take the time to appropriately research it, which unfortunately has led to a glut of misinformation. And the internet has made it easy to cobble together articles by cherry picking “facts” from online “resources” that may or may not have been properly researched.
So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff as far as reliable and accurate accessible travel content is concerned? Truth be told there’s not one sure-fire test, but here are a few tips that will help you weed out those poorly researched pieces — ones in which the writers have never actually visited the destinations in question — and direct you to the more useful and accurate access resources.
Watch the Language
In this day and age of outsourcing tasks, writing is no different. In fact there are many sites online that offer custom content for as little as $5. And to be honest, who can blame people for going the economical route when building a website? The thing is, you get what you pay for, and in many cases this content is being crafted by folks who speak very little English, and just put their finished work through an on-line translator. And of course, for $5 their research is almost non-existent. So, if you start to read an article that makes little sense and begins to sound like those e-mails that you receive from that Nigerian prince who wants to give you millions, chances are the rest of the content on that website is just as unbelievable.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Travel articles must have photos — there’s just no way to get around that requirement. That said, all photos are not created equal, as far as website usage is concerned. Be clear, I’m not talking about quality here, but instead photo content. Be wary of accessible travel articles that only show the beautiful glossy tourism photos, and have no specific access photos. For example, if an article talks about an accessible hotel, but includes a photo of the well manicured gardens under the hotel sign, but fails to include any photos of the accessible rooms, that’s a huge tip-off that the writer has never been in the accessible room. Chances are they are getting their access information second-hand, which in most cases is incorrect, or at the very least inaccurate. And for future reference, there are some good accessible hotel room shots in this article, emerginghorizons.com/a-romantic-retreat-on-the-mendocino-coast.
Been There — Done That
Although the jury is still out on whether you actually have to visit a destination to write a general travel article about it, there is absolutely no way you can pen an accessible travel piece without a site visit. Unfortunately some people are taking shortcuts and gleaning information from online sites and putting it into their accessible travel articles — all without ever leaving the comfort of their desk. This of course leads to a lot of misinformation, which is in turn is copied by others and repurposed into more inaccurate articles. So how do you tell if a writer has been to a destination? Well some folks just come right out and tell you, while others weave it subtly into their narrative. And then some folks tell it with detailed photos or stories about their trip. Beware of any article that reads like a travel brochure and gives absolutely no indication that the writer has ever visited the destination. Also watch out for articles that continually quote websites — “xyz.com says that the Acme Hotel has accessible rooms with roll-in showers” — as that sometimes indicates the writer has not visited the destination and checked out the access first-hand.
The Devil is in the Details
Covering accessible travel is not as easy as it looks — trust me on this one. Not only do you have to do site inspections, but you have to know what to look for. There’s no shortage of places that I’ve visited that claimed to be wheelchair-accessible, but instead had one or two steps at the entrance. And let’s not even talk about the B&B that had two two-by-fours as an entrance ramp. Suffice it to say that if an article only says that a place is wheelchair-accessible, but gives no other concrete access details, chances are either the writer has not visited the place, or they have absolutely no idea about the access needs of wheelchair-users and slow walkers.
Beyond Catch Phrases
If an article gives little more than the catch phrase “ADA compliant” as the entire access description for a hotel, chances are the writer didn’t visit the property. Additionally, since the average traveler has no idea of the actual ADAAG regulations (www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/buildings-and-sites/about-the-ada-standards/background/adaag), that phrase is pretty meaningless. For example, let’s say you are looking for a hotel with a roll-in shower and you read in an article that a certain hotel is “ADA compliant”. Chances are you’d probably assume that hotel has a roll-in shower — and that assumption might be incorrect. According to the ADAAG, only hotels with over 50 rooms are required to have accessible rooms with roll-in showers; so if the hotel only had 45 rooms that “ADA compliant” property would probably only have accessible rooms with tub/shower combinations. And a detailed access description — instead of a short catch phrase — would have clarified that fact.
Look for Understanding
Don’t automatically rule out an article that includes archaic — by US standards — terminology, like “handicapped” and “infirmed”. Although it would tend to show a lack of understanding if these words were used by someone in the US, they are the norm in some developing countries. Look beyond the words for a true understanding of access issues. For example if the article assumes that all wheelchair-users can walk and that one or two steps won’t be a problem, then that person does not understand the realities of life in a wheelchair. Moreover, that lack of understanding will also most likely result in an inappropriate evaluation of the access. On the other hand, if you find an article by someone who doesn’t quite get the language right, but still has a good understanding of access needs, it may actually provide some important access information on a less-touristed region of the world.
The Whole Picture
Be cautious of destination articles that don’t include access information about public transportation. If the author has traveled to the area, they most certainly know of the availability of public transportation, and understand the importance of including this detail in the article. I’ve seen many an accessible travel article with flowing prose — to areas that I knew had no accessible transportation — that mention the sandy beaches and gorgeous sunsets, yet make no note that there is no accessible way to get from the airport to the hotel. Conversely, watch out for articles that claim a destination is accessible because it has an accessible transportation system, yet it fails to include any concrete access details about lodging or attractions.
Be Wary of Roundups
Finally be wary of roundup articles and listicles. These short pieces are all the rage with editors today, and most have a catchy title like “25 of the Best places to X”. Although they are fun to read, they generally contain very little substantive information; as the writer usually didn’t visit the destinations, but instead gleaned access information from the internet and combined it with flowery prose from tourist brochures. That said, some legitimate travel writers — myself included — sometimes pen roundup pieces that contain useful access information. In fact I recently did one on some accessible Grand Canyon views (emerginghorizons.com/five-wheelchair-accessible-grand-canyon-views), and another about accessible lodging, attractions and trails in Mendocino County (emerginghorizons.com/mendocino-county-wheelchair-travel-guide). Both roundups are about places that I’ve visited a number of times — I even penned a guidebook on one. Bottom line — look for meaningful content.
Let’s Talk About Good Access Resources
Since I’ve just spent the last 1,400 words telling you how to spot bad research, let me tell you where you can find good access resources. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include my own Emerging Horizons (emerginghorizons.com), which features destinations, travel tips, resources and the basic nuts and bolts of accessible travel. I’m also an expert on wheelchair access in the US national parks (barrierfreenationalparks.com) and have written a number of books about them.
But there are many more folks out there who cover accessible travel. For example, Sylvia Curbelo Longmire pens her informational and well researched Spin the Globe blog (spintheglobe.net). Although she writes a bit about everything Sylvia is an expert on accessible cruises, and she’s always sailing off somewhere to research port access. She’s also a travel agent, with an expertise in accessible travel.
Then there’s Bonnie Lewkowicz, who founded Access Northern California (accessnca.org), which offers detailed access information on trails, sports and recreation in the north part of the state. She’s another one who has been at this quite a while; in fact I met her over 20 years ago when she was an accessible travel agent. She’s since written a coastal access guide and liaised with the city of San Francisco to provide meaningful access information to visitors.
And last but certainly not least, there’s Cory Lee Woodard who blogs at Curb-Free by Cory Lee (www.curbfreewithcorylee.com). He does a lot of international and adventure travel with his mom, and he certainly has a good collection of well-researched articles.
Are there other reputable resources out there? Of course. And now you have the tools to ferret them out for yourself — and remember, new ones are popping up every day.