Cities and organisations have responsibilities for citizens of all abilities. Associate Professor Simon Darcy asks, how can spaces, places and experiences be framed to provide an equality of experience?
The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees people with disabilities access to all areas of citizenship. The 650 million people with disabilities and estimated 1.2 billion people over the age of 60 by 2020 are both a significant challenge and market opportunity for cities and service industries.
I led a research team in the Visitor Accessibility in Urban Centres project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism.
The research focused on accessible tourism – covering visitors with mobility, vision or hearing impairments or learning difficulties – who are estimated in the report to account for 11% of the total tourism spend in Australia.
The motivation behind the study was to discover the quintessential experiences of Sydney, as the national tourism gateway, from the point of view of the accessible tourism market.
The findings have been broad-ranging with the potential to be ground breaking. The research looked not simply at what accessible tourists ‘can’ or ‘can’t do’, but at the quality of experience they have when they do their tourist thing in and around Sydney’s central business district, Rocks area and Harbour foreshore.The aim was to create a process incorporating universal design and inclusive practice for developing information, marketing and promotion approaches that would provide tourists with access needs with a framework to make informed choices for their tourism intineries.
The project was based on a participatory action approach that worked with major industry stakeholders and service providers to identify what first rate accessible experiences existed and to create an understanding that these are valuable offerings to travelers with access needs.
Many of the service providers had not considered tourism as a component of their operations. What was exciting about this study was that no new accessible experiences were created for the project, instead all the experiences identified were already occurring within the stakeholder and service provider operations, and needed to the reframed within an accessible tourism context and collaboratively marketed.
Accessible tourism is about access for tourists with a range of impairments, from the most readily recognizable needs of wheelchair users for continuous pathways to attractions, way-finding routes and so forth, to alternative communication strategies for people with vision and hearing impairments. Strategies that benefit people with disabilities often translate into benefits for other sectors of the community including people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, families with children in prams and employees who require safer working environments.
The starting point of the study was to consider what would any tourist visiting Sydney want to experience: the views, the Manly Ferry, fish and chips by the water, a sense of the history of the original colony, perhaps. The restricted starting point of what people with disabilities can or can’t do was ignored. After all, few tourists want a list of do’s and don’ts. They want accurate information to enable informed decisions about how to enjoy the city they are visiting. The accessible building blocks of any trip were brought together – transport providers, wayfinding maps, toilet locations – so that planning could be done in the one the virtual location.
The next step involved discovering 20 accessible destination experiences that could be used for tourists with access needs. The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ popular monthly Auslan (Australian sign language) interpreted after-hours gallery tour, allows hearing impaired visitors to engage with the guides and the venue more thoroughly than any written guide ever could; The Royal Botanic Gardens’ Aboriginal Heritage guided tour where people with vision impairments can touch and feel the plants – crush the leaves between their fingers, appeals to an innate desire of many tourists to engage in a sensory experience of a new place, its food, the wine, the song and dance, the aromas.
The report also uncovered opportunities for deeper understanding of the experience of tourists with access needs, and to improve the service offerings. One bugbear, particularly for mobility impaired travellers is finding suitable and enjoyable accommodation.
In Sydney, a key feature of quality accommodation is a view. Yet in the whole of the Sydney CBD and tourist district, there are currently only four accessible hotel rooms that have a Sydney Harbour view and six with a Black Wattle Bay view. Architects may meet the building requirements by including accessible accommodation, but these are often located in the least attractive part of the hotel – near the delivery dock or loading bay, or over a back lane. Such rooms simply do not provide a quality Sydney experience. One hotel actually converted a room with a view to cater for celebrity wheelchair user Christopher Reeve’s visit in 2003, but converted it back to non-accessible once he had left.
On the other hand, some hotels have understood the opportunities of the accessible tourism market, even catering for cultural differences in what is understood by ‘accessible’ in different parts of the world. Wheelchair users from western cultures are most likely, for example, to expect access to a roll-in shower. In Asian cultures, however, wheelchair users will expect to have a bath, and will look for accommodation with transfer-over baths. Some of the big chains have successfully developed a niche market servicing these customers.
The Visitor Accessibility in Urban Centres report, has a wider application, both in establishing the value of the accessible tourism dollar to the Australian economy through using mainstream economic modeling techniques in conjunction with Professor Larry Dwyer of UNSW. The economic modeling showed that tourists with access needs already accounted for a significant 11% of tourist spending, or $4.8bn. Yet they encountered many constraints to what most other members of the public visiting the city would consider to be essential.
The final aspect of the research was to create the www.sydneyforall.com portal that provides quality information for tourists with access needs looking for accessible destination experiences. The portal also provides opportunities for collaborative marketing and branding activities for the organisations and experience providers. In the 18 months of operation, it has received over 20,000 hits from 110 countries and has received a number of awards for access innovation. The City of Sydney has recently provided a further grant to extend the precinct cover to Darling Harbour and to include an accessible accommodation section.
Ultimately, accessible tourism in Sydney is an issue of equity, economics and citizenship. Quite simply if cities and service providers are not preparing for the ageing of the population and the increasing expectations of people with disabilities, they are not acting in a socially sustainable manner. Dr Darcy’s report argues that in meeting the needs of this significant group of visitors tourism providers can strengthen their business across all market segments and build a niche within a dynamic and ever evolving group of travellers.