Podcast: Travelling with a disability

The Disability Download

In this episode of The Disability Download, travel blogger Sophie Elwes and adventure tourist Jezza Williams tell us about their experiences of travelling and adventuring with disabilities, and also what needs to be done to open up the world of travel for disabled people.

Jezza Williams, Founder and CEO, Makingtrax: Being a C5 tetraplegic, you know, I’ve got a huge understanding of the outdoor industry, but I've got a huge understanding of pretty much every ability. Because, you know, if my amazing body can do it, then any body can do it.

Sophie Elwes, blogger and host of A Life Less Ordinary podcast: I think something that travel companies can do is to increase representation of people with disabilities, particularly in their sort of, in their PR and stuff like that.

Verity Ayling-Smith, Training and Consultancy Advisor, Leonard Cheshire: We often use the word accessible in quite a broad way to say, Oh, we've got accessible rooms, or, you know, this particular pathway is accessible. But actually what is accessible to one individual is very different. The accessibility means different things for different people.

Veronica Velazquez, Senior Inclusion and Diversity Manager, Expedia Group: Bigger companies like Expedia group, and the hotels and airline names that many of us know very well need to do more to understand those underserved travellers. And we all have a role in breaking down the barriers that we may be inadvertently creating without recognising.

Erin O’Reilly, Leonard Cheshire: Hello, and welcome to the Disability Download. The Disability Download is brought to you by pan disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I'm Erin O'Reilly, and on this podcast, we respond to current topics, share stories, and open up conversations about disability. Hi, there, everyone. And thanks so much for tuning in to our first podcast episode of 2021.

Travel is something that's been a pretty relevant topic over the last year. And no doubt we'll continue to be this year as we keep navigating through this pandemic. So while we're all no doubt, hoping and wishing that we'll be able to plan some trips this year, whether that be in the UK or abroad, on this episode, we wanted to talk about accessibility within the travel industry. And we ask how inclusive is it really.

So there's some brilliant interviews during this episode, which highlight what accessibility really means to disabled travellers and show some really great examples of how the industry has evolved over time, but also shines a spotlight on some areas that the industry can really work to improve on. So I'm going to pass over to my colleague, Sam, who's going to tell us a little bit more about our guests.

Sam Buckley, Leonard Cheshire: A lot of us will have a list of things we're looking forward to after everything gets back to normal. And if you're anything like me, travel will be fairly high up that list. Despite the challenging times, the travel industry and plenty of people with the travel bug already looking ahead to the days when travel becomes possible again, and in particular, many also want to see travel put in reach of more people than ever before when the world finally reopens.

A big part of this is making travelling more inclusive for disabled people. How do you ensure every traveller has a good experience, whether they're, say, hiking in the UK, whitewater rafting in New Zealand or trekking in Nepal? Here at Leonard Cheshire, we've partnered with Expedia group to produce a roadmap for the whole travel industry to become more inclusive. And that's from airlines to hotels to adventure tourism. For this reason, and the fact that it's the middle of winter up here in the UK, we thought would be nice to talk about travel and holidays on the Disability Download this time.

So along with those who worked on the report, I also sought out an adventurer in New Zealand and a travel blogger from the UK to talk about what it means for travel to be inclusive for disabled people. Of course, the only real travelling we did was Zoom so do excuse occasional changes in sound quality. Our guests views are their own. Our first guest is adventure tourism Guru jazzer Williams, who founded his own company, when he saw how few inclusive options were available for disabled tourists. I'll let Jezza introduce himself.

Jezza Williams: Hi, everybody! Thanks for listening. as Sam said, my name is Jezza I run Making Trax, which is New Zealand's inclusive tourism specialists and adaptive adventure experts. I am an adventure guide. I've always been an adventure guide here in New Zealand before venturing overseas, in places like Australia to start with, then over to Europe and Switzerland, and then down to Honduras and Central America, up into North America…started really bouncing all over the place mainly river guiding, and working in the canyons, as well and sort of fell in love with the lifestyle of travelling all over the show. And then one day!

You know, you're doing this sort of stuff every single day pushing, pushing your limits. And in a canyon in Switzerland, I had this amazing, beautiful day that just didn't finish the way I thought it would. And at the top of a big canyon jump I normally take and take took a little bit of a slip and ended up falling into this beautiful little waterfall at the bottom on the way down, crunching my neck and breaking my C5 and C6 vertebrae, boom, life changing right there. But we're not going to dwell on that sort of stuff. It was more about how it changed my path.

So Sam, I had a year in Switzerland and not well, in this amazing rehab centre. And in that time, you know, I had to rebuild myself, you know, took me a while to overcome that. I'd say it took me a good few months. But whilst I was there, I did look into the outdoor industry to keep myself in the industry. To start with, really, until I looked and to see what was available within the adventure-based area, sent away a few funny little emails and bits and pieces, just doing some enquiries, and there was nothing really going on and very difficult for people to find out. So right then and there was I was still in rehab, I came up with this amazing name, called Making Trax! With an ex, you know, like, “extreme”. (Sam laughs)

Back in those days, you like…but you know, it was a fun name. Because, we're making tracks, we're changing the face, we're pushing the limits, and we're leaving a path behind us. And that's exactly what Making Trax is, even to this day. So that was back in 2010. And then from that moment forward, I started opening up the industry. It's been quite a journey.

Sam: You've mentioned before, you talked about this complete lack of inclusive experience in that kind of industry, but you really weren't going to have to blaze a new trail, how much does that like sort of changed, since, would you say?

Jezza: Well, Sam, you know, whether it's time or whether it's actually Making Trax putting in the work, it's definitely changing. And right now, it's changed quite considerably compared to when I started it, which was nearly a decade ago. At the start, I probably just wanted to open up the companies to prove a point. And being a C5 tetraplegic, you know, I've got a huge understanding of the outdoor industry, but I've got a huge understanding of pretty much every ability, because, you know, if my amazing body can do it, then anybody can do it.

So over the time, I sort of came up with different adaptions and different ways of dealing with barriers that I came across, I suppose. But over this time, I've learned exactly what inclusive tourism is. Over my experience, and over my time, I've come to the realisation, especially through my own experience, it only takes four magic words. First one: education, boom. Next one: information, magic. Cooperation. And last, but not least, is adaption - but only when needed. In the river industry, we've always been taught this word KISS: keep it simple, stupid. And that is very much the way that Making Trax approaches things. We keep it simple, safe, practical, cost effective. And we provide all the information that the company requires, and the client requires, to have the confidence to run the trip. If that company is educated, and the client has all the information, and they cooperate together, and if they have the audit action when needed, then the client can make up their own mind whether or not that activity is for them. And that is the same with every tourist activity.

But it's all about the information that that client has. You know, my dream is for people just about to drive down that road and rock up to a company and see the little emblem of the Making Trax on the door, and rock on, and just keep treated like any human. Because you know what, the only thing that as humans have in common is diversity. And when the world wakes up to that fact, they'll realise that there's so many opportunities.

Sam: That’s so true what you're saying, that everyone is different. And, like, from what you're saying, it's kind of like someone might have a vision of what they want to do on holiday, and that's always going to be different - but part of your job is kind of realising that vision for them.

Jezza: Exactly, exactly. Like, for example, we get a lot of travellers coming to…well, not at the moment! (Sam: Haha, of course!) But I'd say we get a lot of travellers coming to New Zealand, and very much inclusive clients come to New Zealand and I find that when people are thinking about coming here, the biggest thing is having the confidence and having the know how and reassurance you know, you can be as prepared as you possibly can be, you never know what's going to happen.

And if you're afraid to be drought, you'll never experience something that you could never understand will be possible. So that next little story I'm going to tell you is about a trip that I did in Nepal in 2019. Way more inclusive than many other countries have ever been. It's not accessible. Gosh, definitely not accessible. Kathmandu? To get that place accessible, you'd have to get a bulldozer, knock it all down, and then rebuild it again. But it's incredibly inclusive.

And that means that everybody is awesome, and everybody is there to assist you. They can help you in many, many ways. Accessibility and travel is amazing, and if you want to go to a very accessible place, go to Singapore. It's the most accessible city or country I've ever been to in my life. But if you want adventure, then you have to be willing to think outside the circle and go for the inclusive tourism. And that's what making tracks is all about where inclusive tourism. Information, education, cooperation and adaption.

Sam: So it's a lot more about attitudes and mindset than it is about, like you said, about ramps and toilets. You know, that means that even somewhere like Nepal, which is the ultimate mountain country, is inclusive.

Jezza: Yeah, exactly. And that that is the difference between inclusive and accessible. The thing with all, or most, of the activities that people do in New Zealand, it's not accessible. Like, we have accessible bathrooms, we have hotels and motels and backpackers and everything, that stuff’s accessible as. You can even get a self-drive car, hire a self-drive car to go around New Zealand, you know, it's very accessible. But to do real things: to go on a multi-day river trip, to go up in a helicopter and get out onto the glaciers, to go paragliding, to go skydiving, to experience real adventure, like everybody should?

Then, none of that stuff's accessible, and none of it will ever be accessible. But it's very inclusive, definitely inclusive. It's all easy. It's all simple. It's just, you know, it's just the way that you look at it. The possibilities are honestly endless. I always talk to the industry, I am in the industry, it's just about people understanding how simple it is and that's both industry and client. Because I do realise, Sam, I do realise people don't know what's available until they get here. Nobody knows what class five helerafting is until they’ve been class five helerafting.

So it's about the individuals and the industry realising that we can do just as much as any average joe. Probably a little bit more. I could be physically one of the most vulnerable people on the planet. But I've travelled everywhere. I've done so many awesome activities. And it's given me an amazing experience. Given me an amazing life! And it gives me amazing life all the time. The only thing holding you back from doing something is the unknown. But if you swap it around and think, adventure: to undertake a task without knowing the outcome, that - for somebody that's got a disability - is extremely hard to do. But adventure travel is simple. It's easy. All that slowing people down is their fear. And the only… I get scared, everybody needs scared, do you know, even the big wave surfers, they all get scared.

The only reason they don't have the fear as much as they as everybody thinks is because the only way to lose that fear is through experience. You need to get out there you need to experience it. If you don't experience it, then that fear will get harder and you won't go. This is the time. The technology's here, the information’s here, everything's here for you to get out and have a fantastic time.

Sam: I also heard from travel blogger, Sophie Elwes, who talks often about her extensive travel experience, and also about travelling with a disability. Sophie, very warm welcome to the Disability Download. (Sophie: Thank you very much!) If you’d just like to start by telling us a little bit about yourself. You're interested in travel and some of the things you're doing now, such as blogging about your experiences on Instagram, and your new podcast, A Life Less Ordinary?

Sophie Elwes: Absolutely, yes. So I'm a bit of a multi-hyphenate, some would say. I have a blog called Our Adaptive World, which I started a few years ago, kind of on the back of ski racing. I ski and wakeboard for Great Britain, which luckily gets me to travel a little bit as well, which is cool. And yeah, I host a podcast, as you say, called A Life Less Ordinary. I was skiing, I'm kind of alpine skiing, for a few years kind of racing, things like that.

And as I sort of came to the end of that chapter of my life, I had a really good friend called Beth who's based out in Colorado, she's American, and we both love travel, we thought it was really, really important to get the message out to other people. And when I say that we love travelling, but we loved adventuring as well. That's a huge part of my life. It’s not just you know, going abroad, going travelling or going on holiday is going on adventures and pushing boundaries, pushing, you know, breaking barriers about what's possible and what isn't.

And it's so sad that there are so many people out there with disabilities who just don't realise what is possible. You know, I'm in a sort of, I find myself in a community of people who, you know, are adventurous, a lot of that is over Instagram or, or with people that I know and you know, sport, whatever. But I'm so aware that there are so many people who are not aware of the opportunities that are out there. And I've always been very lucky that I've had a lot of opportunities to do things, since I sustained my injury. we wanted to get the message out that it really is possible to go on adventures and go travelling.

Sam: What would be your biggest bit of advice for someone who wants to go and have an adventure, but is intimidated by the potential lack of accessibility and inclusion in that sector?

Sophie: I mean it's complex, because obviously, disability is very varied. It's not that one person's experiences is always the same as another's. And so I would say certainly speak to other people who are in a similar situation to you. Get their advice, whether it's via charity, or online, you know, there's an amazing community of people with all sorts of disabilities online. But also, I would say sort of more specifically, a piece of advice, certainly with a physical disability is, if you're travelling is have your essentials on you. Have what you need, your medication, and any other things. You don't want to get in trouble.

I definitely got a bit blasé, when I was travelling so much skiing, I'd be sort of away for 10 days, and I come back for five and then I go away again. And I got super blasé about travelling and there was definitely a few instances where I didn't have stuff with me or a wheelchair wasn't brought to the aircraft. But yeah, I think speaking to people is absolutely crucial. And then you can really get the information that you need.

Sam: How inclusive in general, have you found travel providers, airlines, hoteliers? Has it changed? Has it got better? Has it got worse?

Sophie: That's a good question about whether it's changed. I'd like to think it's got better, but it varies so so much. I suppose it's difficult for me to tell if it's got better because it's probably me as a traveller has gotten better at choosing what I want. I know what sort of hotels to go for now. I certainly, you know, in the future, I have plans to go and travel properly for a longer period of time. And not always just go to a sort of a classic hotel that I'm I know won't be accessible. I'm kind of looking forward to pushing myself a little bit like that.

Yeah, so airlines, airlines is a tricky one! It varies a lot, I find ones that BA are an absolute breeze. On the whole, they're really, really good. I don’t whether it's appropriate to kind of name and shame! But there's certainly some airlines that I would try and avoid if possible. But it's really important to do what you need to do as a passenger, in that, you know, you need to kind of book in for assistance, make sure that you've got everything that you need, and be there plenty of time and things like that, to sort of make them be able to provide the service that they provide best for you. So you're not turning up late and not booking assistance, you know what I mean? But it just has varied so much that it doesn't get any easier when it's, you know, 10 years, I've been injured and it's still as frustrating, I think.

Sam: Yeah. Well, as it should be. (Sophie: Yeah.) What do you think the industry as a whole should be doing differently?

Sophie: I mean, I think consulting with people with disabilities, that's a no brainer, absolutely. Just because it is so varied, people's experiences, and, you know, people's kind of life experiences are really important to take into account, of course. And the other thing with travel is that every stage needs to be taken into account. You know, it's not just the plane travel, or however you're getting there, the transfers are as important. It's not just the hotel room, you know, it's the other things, you know, particularly if you're travelling further away or to somewhere, that's, you know, there are several legs in order to get there.

It's really important that everything is accounted for, you know, obviously, bathrooms is absolutely crucial, kind of along the way as well. I would say generally with, with airlines, when you're kind of saying that you need assistance, it's quite comprehensive. And you know, for me, I have a spinal cord injury, I can't walk, so it's not difficult, it just kind of ticked the box, can't walk, can't leave my seat. And it's not sort of, I don't have to explain it and things like that, and that I always really like I appreciate. But I think it's just important for you know, whatever it is travel companies, airlines and stuff to be… you know, travel companies, particularly, to be aware that there are different levels of mobility.

And I think something that travel companies can do is to increase representation of people with disabilities, particularly in their, sort of, in their PR, and stuff like that. And just, you know it partly to make everyone aware that they are inclusive and to make people with disabilities, you know, feel include included, but also to know that they are catered for then, as well. Not just in sort of disability media, but kind of all over the place. And I think that would do a huge amount for, you know, making it more inclusive.

Sam: It shows everyone that this is a space that we can access, you know, that it's not just for the people on the billboard, it's represented by their advertising. I think that's absolutely key. Tell me a bit more about that podcast, how it kind of came about. What were your motivations?

Sophie: So a few years ago, when I was on the alpine ski race circuit, I remember just thinking I was sort of around all these people having these conversations. And so many of them had had had been through such kind of adversity, challenging times, things like that. And I was always really curious and wanting to talk to them about their lives. And it was really, it was so kind of diverse, like there was a blind skier from Chile, there was a female amputee from Japan.

You know, that was just, and one girl who's a good friend of mine, now she's a deafblind medical student who's also a ski racer, and it was actually speaking to her really, and getting to know her and her incredible story, which just made me kind of want to get these stories out to the wider world. I know that often, when people have been through something difficult, some sort of challenge or adversity, or something like that, it often brings them, you know, kind of more success sometimes, because they've had to sort of fight and had to learn or whatever it is. So that's always been something that's really interested in interested me as locked down sort of hit it was it was kind of ideal, it meant that people were available.

So I was really fortunate I managed to get some great guests on, including Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, Sophie Morgan, for those who will know how with disability and also non disabled as well. The last person I interviewed was Charlie Boorman, who's in Long Way up, which was really cool. Really, it just really, (Sam: Wow, that’s really cool.) yeah, he was, I love speaking to him. He was wicked.

So you know, it's been really enjoyable. And it's all about, you know, people who have been through some sort of challenge or adversity in their life. And you know, it's big challenges. Like Charlie had had this, well, two massive motorbike accidents. And it's kind of, it's really, the idea is to sort of get their story and hear about what they've been through, but also to find out what advice they would tell other people who might be facing a challenge of their own. It's really kind of inspired me, actually. And it's been it's been great, people have been kind of really enjoying it, which is nice, nice to hear when you're kind of doing it in your bedroom, sort of thing! But it's had a really great response, which is cool.

Sam: So you're able to kind of keep up the travel bug even during a year when we can't really travel anywhere.

Sophie: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Well, that's the beautiful thing about like, you know, this digital world we find ourselves in is that distance has no no limits, no bounds or whatever they say.

Sam: Next, I spoke to the author of our job report with Expedia group, breaking down barriers to travel. This is Verity ailing Smith training and consultancy advisor here at Cheshire. Verity, If you'd like to introduce yourself, just to start with, and tell us a bit about yourself and the work you've been doing with Expedia Group.

Verity Ayling-Smith: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, Sam. So my name is Verity Ayling-Smith and I work in the training and consultancy team at Leonard Cheshire. My role is to work with external organisations to support them to understand disability and take a best practice approach. So we've been working with Expedia Group, and they approached us to author a report on inclusive practice within the travel sector. So I researched and authored our report, which is called Breaking Down Barriers to Travel, which hopefully give some really nice positive insight regarding the travel industry and ways that organisations can work in more inclusive and accessible ways.

Sam: What was your sort of overall impression from working on that report? So I know you spoke to a few companies and groups of sort of tourists and travellers spread out across the world. (Verity: Yeah.) What was your overall impression?

Verity: I think it was a it was really interesting because there's certainly I think, an perhaps a negative perception in terms of the travel industry, particularly personal experiences of travellers. We often hear the negative reviews or the bad experiences quite a lot in the news, but there are some great things going on. And there are organisations who are doing really innovative and exciting things in this area. I think talking to disabled people particularly. Obviously, unfortunately, they did talk a lot about negative experiences or poor customer service. But there were always some great examples in our focus groups of were actually, one person's made a big difference to their journey or a particular initiative.

Sam: Have you got any sort of specific examples of barriers? And how companies or individuals have kind of overcome them?

Verity: Yeah, I think, well, a key one really was providing inclusive customer service. And I think the report really tries to, to make the case that, you know, disabled people are consumers as well, and you know, they deserve and expect a great choice and opportunity. They expect great value as well.

I think another element for me, it was really just organisations who had an understanding of what accessibility is, because I think we often use the word accessible in quite a broad way to say, “Oh, we've got accessible rooms,” or, you know, “this particular pathway is accessible.” But actually, what is accessible to one individual is very different. Accessibility means different things for different people.

So in the report, we've tried to kind of take it back to basics and explain what is disability, what is accessibility, and what is inclusion.  Saying you have an accessible hotel room perhaps isn't helpful, the you know, the bed height might not be accessible, there might not be enough room to manoeuvre for a wheelchair user, even the temperature controls in the room might not be accessible. So what is it about the product or service which is actually accessible? Because otherwise people might not be able to make fully informed independent decisions which work for them when they're booking their next trip or their holiday.

So the example that we gave was around an individual who, when using an airport had found that she was often taken sort of through the back channels of the airport, because it was the quickest and most accessible route for her. Because she used mobility aids, and it was just easier or quicker. For her that was a really great adjustment that worked, because obviously, airport’s are huge and it takes a long time to travel from A to B. But it meant that she was separated from her family, and she was sort of segregated from everyone else travelling because she was going through these back channels at the airport, and she didn't feel like she received the same experience as everyone else.

And that was the kind of key difference between accessibility, it being, you know, able to use or able to travel, but that inclusivity of not feeling as valued or not being included with other passengers. So that was a really nice example, or a helpful example for us to educate people about the difference between accessibility and inclusivity. What is inclusive is inclusive for everyone. So it's recognising the value in that as well.

Sam: Absolutely. It's not just about opening up travel, it's giving everyone the same quality of experience.

Verity: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Sam: And in your report, kind of along that theme, you had four key recommendations that you were going to make to the travel industry. Could you just run us through what  those recommendations were?

Verity: Yes of course. So are sort of four keys or recommendation themes were really drawn out from our research and also our insight from providers and disabled people. So the four themes were designing barrier free travel experiences, so really building in inclusivity, and accessibility from the beginning, when we're looking at new products and services, or ensuring that there are ways that people can request adjustments, accommodations or changes.

Our second theme was in relation to making information clear. So what about your product or service is accessible, making sure that people have all of that information up front so that they're able to make their own independent, fully informed choices. We also had a theme in relation to providing inclusive customer service. So perhaps giving customer facing teams the knowledge, skills and competence they need to work in inclusive ways, and understanding how to make adjustments, but also making sure that the kind of communication channels that we use are accessible.

Often we find that travel providers give customers perhaps one point of contact when requesting adjustments, or asking kind of customer service questions. And really, we want to ensure that any individual who communicates in any way can request those things. So research has shown that often kind of accessibility teams are only available over the phone. But of course that isn't accessible for perhaps an individual with a hearing impairment. So making sure there's multiple ways of communication.

And our final theme was involving people with disability so nothing about us without us ensuring that we're including disabled people in the design of our products and services, in decision making. And also that we're employing disabled people within our organisations to create a better workplace and a better workforce who have more diverse ideas and are able to create more inclusive opportunities for their consumers as well.

Sam: I'm quite interested in that final point around nothing about us without us. I think it cuts back to that idea of accessibility versus inclusion. So can you give an example of how including disabled people in the process of designing a service made a real difference to how inclusive it was?

Verity: A case study that we include within the report is Marriott International. And last year, they developed this really exciting initiative called Room For All. And essentially, it was a kind of prototype accessible room that they housed in their innovation lab in the basement of their headquarters over in North America. And what they did is they engaged with disabled people, and asked them questions about sort of how would you use this room? Or how do you like to use a hotel room? What barriers do you face, they also went to people's houses as well, to see what their had their own setup was like to see how they navigated space. And they used that insight that the design team sort of gathered from real experiences, and asking questions, and involving people in that kind of consultation process, to prototype a new type of accessible room.

So from that consultation that the design team did, they were able to make tangible changes to an accessible room. So one of the changes they made was to bed height. And what Marriott International have done is they've actually implemented a new standard bed height across I think it's 200 hotels all around the world, because of that innovation with that design team. And that consultation with disabled people.

I think that collaboration, and that partnership, involving disabled people, allowed the design team to think about barriers in a new way, or to identify where barriers exist. So involving disabled people from the get go, was really, really valuable insight and hopefully will have a really great impact in all Marriott international branches. I think, looking at our research and looking at the kind of best practice that's already out there, organisations or providers are doing some fantastic things.

But I think historically, the travel industry has often focused on compliance, and legally what they need to do to ensure that they are meeting regulation or they're meeting standards all over the world, which of course, they absolutely should do. But what I really want organisations to do is recognise the value and the imperative of working in more inclusive ways, which is about going beyond the law. It's about creating better experiences. And I'm, I'm really hopeful that those initiatives that we've highlighted and those recommendations that we've given, are encouraging and motivating and aren't something to be fearful of, but actually to become really excited about, because I think inclusion really breeds innovation.

Sam: Thank you very much Verity. And I think that's one of the things I really liked about reading your report was the optimism of it. And Verity, I'd like to thank you so much for joining us on the Disability Download. For the listeners at home, you can find a copy of Breaking Down Barriers to Travel on Leonard Cheshire's website. And Verity, once again, thank you so much for joining us.

Verity: Thanks for having me.

Sam: Finally,I spoke to Veronica Velasquez, senior inclusion and diversity manager at Expedia group, who is based in New York City. So Veronica, thank you so much for joining us on the disability download. And I wondered if we could start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your role at Expedia group.

Veronica Velazquez: Thank you so much for having me. My name is Veronica Velazquez. pronouns are she her hers. And I work at Expedia group. I've been here for about two years out of the New York City Office. My role specifically as a senior inclusion and diversity manager at Expedia group, I specialised in communications and marketing. And so I work with internal teams to ensure we are transparently communicating our inclusion process and I also work on empowering our brand teams to work with underrepresented offices to better serve those travellers. And Expedia group's purpose is to bring the world within reach. And so to do that, we need to reflect the diverse backgrounds of our employees, our partners, our travellers, and our companies.

Sam: That’s wonderful – so a very wide ranging role. Thinking about inclusive travel, why is inclusive travel so important to the industry, in your opinion?

Veronica: I'd say because people of all identities, and those who are underserved are finding these platforms for planning and booking safe travel. So bigger companies like Expedia group and the hotels and airline names that many of us know very well need to do more to understand those under-served travellers. And we all have a role in breaking down the barriers that we may be inadvertently creating without recognising our company's missions are based on customer service, and uniting travellers with new cultures, and nostalgic and familial needs. So we need to remember to use our privileged position.

Sam: Absolutely, which was a key driver for the reported which you co-authored Leonard Cheshire in 2020. And what for you was kind of the most striking finding in terms of promoting increased travel from that report and the state of the industry?

Veronica: It's hard to pick just one; I'll list maybe two. One is I think all of the case studies from travel partners actively serving people with disabilities, not just reacting, companies that are proactively serving them. The ease of finding the information, these companies, such programmes that are to me very brilliantly inspirational and make me want to share these.

And also reading in the report how so many disability-focused organisations are partnering with travel companies, to create inclusive products and services. I think originally, I saw a lot of these disability organisations as human resource benefits, so how can we better understand and employ people with disabilities? And these organisations are doing fantastically with that, but now they're taking it even further, and helping companies like ours create inclusive businesses together. So it was really really insightful to learn that these disability orgs they're doing more than just helping you employ diverse talent there, they can actually be a great partner.

Sam: What is kind of your hope for the travel industry going forward?

Veronica: I really hope Expedia Group and our travel partners leverage this report, to find opportunities in their services to better cater to travellers with disabilities. I hope that we do not get bogged down in finding all the costs that might be associated with the benefit of a more inclusive product. I hope we don't feel that there's too much to tackle all at once. I know that can sometimes be a form of paralysis, where there's so much work to be done, where do you even begin, and that's why this report breaks down suggestions, and provides the voices of target travellers, as well as companies who have made great strides.

So if you're looking to just zone in on a specific area, you could learn more about how to provide more inclusive customer service. So we at Expedia Group, we've been on a journey. It's a relatively new journey of creating accessible web features across our brands, as well as educating our travel partners on how to inclusively advertise on our platforms. But we can all be in this together.

Sam: I came away from recording this podcast feeling like there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic. There's lots of amazing work being done inside and outside the travel industry to put the world within reach. Here's to hoping that when we are all able to travel again, that we'll be travelling in a much more inclusive world.

Erin: So I really loved the interviews in this episode and thought they just shared really, really great examples of, you know, how you don't need to feel restricted, but how the industry can really work to make sure that people have a great travel experience, and that travel is open to everyone, and there's no limitations. And it's made me really excited for when we can finally travel again.

And I guess you know, one of the benefits of the pandemic and our reliance on technology and video calling, it does mean that we are able to interview and connect with people from all over the world and learn about people's experiences. So if you do want to find out more about the people we've interviewed on this episode, we'll post the links to their socials and their websites in the notes section of our Simplecast page. And I'll also pop the link to the report that Sam has been talking about in the episode as well.

And we want to know what you think about the episode and our previous episodes and if there's any topics you'd really like us to cover in 2021. So please email us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org, or you can contact us on Twitter or Instagram, Our handle’s @LeonardCheshire. And please remember to like, share and subscribe to our podcast. Thanks so much for listening. Stay safe everyone. Until next time, I'm Erin and this has been the Disability Download.