Travelers with disability question operators’ language on ‘inclusive’ and ‘accessible’ holidays


The number of tourism attractions in Queensland that advertise themselves as wheelchair access is on the rise, but some visitors find the use of the term misleading and want business operators and the tourism industry to be more transparent about accessibility claims.

Holiday-makers Clyde and Robin Paterson found it hard to find a tour on a recent trip to Cairns that could accommodate their electric wheelchairs, even though the tour companies’ websites assured inclusivity.

“A number of tour companies actually told us that everything was going to be wheelchair accessible, and we didn’t find out until we arrived that’s not really the case,” Mr Paterson said.

“What reef operators are saying and what they are offering is not true. It’s as simple as that.”

Multiple tour operators offer daily access to the Great Barrier Reef.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Further research found that while many tourism operators were able to take wheelchairs, most could only transport wheelchairs up to a certain size and weight.

Spotted stingray hiding under a large coral in the shallows on the Great Barrier Reef
Marine life is in abundance on the reef.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

For Mrs Paterson, who has spina bifida and is the prime carer for her husband who has multiple sclerosis, transport proved to be a major issue.

“We wanted to do a tour of the Daintree but couldn’t find a tour company that could accommodate us,” Mrs Paterson said.

“We were told none of the buses were equipped with lifts, so we had to visit the Daintree ourselves in a taxi.”

She said they would have preferred to visit the region with a tour guide but instead were left with no other option but to hire a taxi for the day, which cost more than $1,000.

“I get a bit miffed that we miss out on things that other people take for granted,” she said.

While the Patersons were able to enjoy some tourism experiences that catered for their needs, they said more education was needed on what inclusive and accessible travel truly meant.

“Tour operators need to understand what it’s like being in a wheelchair or being disabled before they can make decisions on how accessible they are,” Mr Paterson said.

Attitudinal barriers also problematic

Dane Cross is the senior advisor for access and inclusion at Spinal Life Australia.

He said that as a quadriplegic, he struggled with people’s lack of understanding about the challenges wheelchair users faced.

He said people often confused the terms accessible and inclusive.

Dane Cross says he faces daily challenges living in a wheelchair
Mr Cross would like to see more tourism operators catering for tourists with disability.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

“When you label something as accessible people assume full accessibility. So if you say you are wheelchair accessible, you want to be able to hang your hat on that,” he said.

“Physical barriers are a problem but so too are attitudinal barriers.”

Mr Cross said the same applied to transport operators.

“A holiday is not just about having an accessible hotel room to stay in. You want to go out and experience the region and that means being able to get around,” he said.

“Disabled tourists rely on the airlines, the taxis, trains and buses, and unfortunately accessible transport is not always available.”

Tourism team to get real-life experience

Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ) chief executive Mark Olsen agreed the tourism industry has a long way to go.

“We know that about one in three Australian households identify as having a family member with an accessibility challenge,” he said

Mark Olsen smiles in front of the Cairns Lagoon with apartments behind.
Mark Olsen says inclusive tourism is an important issue for the industry.(ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

Mr Olsen said TTNQ had launched a campaign to address the issues.

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