Travel with a Disability: Digital Accessibility is Vital from the Start

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People with disabilities enjoy vacation getaways as much as anyone else. But when you have a disability, you tend to have more questions and do more preplanning before you travel. That’s why digital accessibility – in other words, a barrier-free experience on the websites you visit – is a vital part of your journey.

Booking travel online

Long before you pack your bags, board your flight or check into your hotel room, you’re gathering information. Will the transportation be accessible? Will the accommodations be suitable? Will the excursions be a good fit? These are just a few of the details you might check out ahead of time. Travel expenses are costly. If you have specific disability-related needs, you aren’t likely to put down your deposit unless you are confident those needs will be met.

Digital Barriers are Travel Barriers

Websites play a significant role when people with disabilities are making their travel arrangements. Open Doors Organization’s (ODO) Marketing Forecast 20151 reports that when travellers with disabilities book their trips, it’s most frequently done through the Internet. In fact, people with disabilities are twice as likely to make flight or hotel reservations online as they are over the phone.

Same goes for information-gathering about destinations, attractions, hotels, airlines and cruise lines. ODO found that three out of five travellers with disabilities turn to the Internet as their main source of information before making their travel selections.

So, what happens if the websites they visit aren’t digitally accessible? What if the promotional video for a dreamy tropical destination isn’t captioned? What if the links to various hotel amenities are clickable images, and lack any text that a screen reader can detect? What if there’s no way to search for an available wheelchair accessible hotel room using keyboard controls?

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These may seem like minor details. But if you’re a prospective traveller with a disability, these are barriers that prevent you from getting the information you need before you are prepared to make your decision – and make your reservation.

The Disability Travel Market

North Americans with disabilities spend an estimated $19 billion per year on their travel arrangements. Plus, consider that people with disabilities don’t normally travel alone. In fact, statistics show they travel with larger groups now than they did 15 years ago. They’ve also become more likely to travel with other adults instead of children. Add up these additional fares and fees, and the true value of their travel spending is more like $40 billion – or higher.

The market of travellers with disabilities is also expanding, thanks in part to aging baby boomers. It’s an exciting opportunity. As a 2015 paper in Journal of Tourism Futures2 notes: “The accessible tourism market is a distinct sector, possessing the capacity for extensive future growth, and thus presents major travel providers with a potentially substantial and lucrative market.”

But it’s an opportunity that may be missed if your website doesn’t welcome the business of travellers with disabilities by providing relevant, disability-related information – and ensuring that digital information is in an accessible format.

Amy J. Kostash, who investigated accessible tourism for her Master of Arts degree in Critical Disability Studies, remarked on this in her paper, “All Aboard? Accessing Cruising.” She wrote: “Having appropriate information for consumers is half the battle. The other half is having the information displayed in a way that is accessible, and easily retrieved, regardless of user.” In other words, it’s not enough to post online information about travelling with a disability. That information needs to be fully accessible. After all, disability-related information is useless if the person who needs it can’t retrieve it.

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Download our whitepaper The Jargon Free Guide to Web Accessibility to learn more about digital accessibility guidelines.

Digital Accessibility is Required by Law

Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), providers of public accommodations and services in the U.S. must not discriminate against customers who have disabilities. These include facilities like hotels, restaurants, transportation carriers and tour operators. These private companies must take steps to ensure that people with disabilities can use their services just like everyone else.

And just as the entrance of a hotel must be wheelchair accessible, or a cruise line must allow service animals on board, any travel operator that has a website for the general public must ensure that the website is accessible to people with disabilities.

Foreign-operated travel companies are also obligated to follow this law if they serve customers in the United States. As Kostash notes in her paper, this was demonstrated as far back as 2005, with the Spector v Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. decision.

The Cost of Ignoring Web Accessibility

In her research, Kostash inspected the websites of five major cruise lines for digital accessibility, using an automated accessibility testing application called HTML_CodeSniffer. She found that not one of them met the standards of the universal web accessibility guidelines known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This means that not one of these websites was barrier free.

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In fact, one of the companies had 500 errors – that’s 500 individual barriers in the way of cruise travellers with disabilities. Kostash noted that this website also stood out for another reason: “[The] website is one of the more thorough in terms of delivering information on accessible cruising to consumers.” Yet despite an extensive array of disability-related information on the site, “the number of errors in web content accessibility is astounding.”

Other companies in the travel industry, not just cruise operators, need to pay attention to digital accessibility. In 2010, under a settlement3 with the U.S. Department of Justice, Hilton Worldwide was given less than a year to bring all websites for all its brands into compliance with WCAG standards, among other actions. It was also ordered to pay a $50,000 civil penalty. Updates to the ADA specifically mention that “places of lodging” must make sure people with disabilities can book their stay in all the same ways that everyone else can – including with online reservations. But essentially any web-based information that is available to the public, not just online reservations systems, must be in accessible format.

Airlines must also get on board, so to speak. Almost three-quarters (72%) of the air travellers with disabilities surveyed by ODO noted that they’d experienced a “major obstacle” with an airline. The Air Carriers Access Act, which applies not only to U.S. airlines but to any others flying in and out of the country, prohibits discrimination against travellers with disabilities. Among the requirements spelled out in this legislation: their websites must meet the web accessibility standards of WCAG.

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The Value of Word of Mouth

For the travel industry, there’s much to be gained from happy customers who have disabilities. As we’ve already established, they generate a lot of spending in this sector. The real question is whether or not your company will benefit from that spending, or whether the money will flow to some other travel operator.

If you take digital accessibility and other types of disability accommodation seriously, you stand to gain even more business. Travellers with disabilities have been shown to rely heavily on word of mouth when choosing where they might take their next trip. If their friend or colleague with a disability is able to report a quality customer experience, they know that’s a promising place to start.

Thus if you can ensure your online presence is barrier free, your travel website may well be their next destination.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.


  1. Marketing Forecast 2015 Open Doors Organization, 2015.
  2. Journal of Tourism Futures Emerald Insight, 2015.
  3. under a settlement Department of Justice, 2010.

What to do next

We can help you meet WCAG standards and maintain ADA and AODA compliance:

  1. Connect with us today to learn more about our comprehensive approach to digital accessibility, including our automated and manual auditing capabilities and extensive range of managed services.
  2. Visit our resources section to download free white papers and webinars, and find our newest blogs on industry trends.
  3. Connect with us to continue the conversation on Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.

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