Gaining Entry

Betsy Cummings examines the problems facing people with disabilities in hotels, conference centers, and public buildings worldwide, by analyzing the policies of a sample of countries on different continents. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs4/cummings2000.html

Got a meeting abroad? How easily will your attendees with disabilities cope with the barriers?

One winter evening in 1993, planner Cheri Chase lay sprawled out flat on St. George Street in Sydney, Australia. Hit by a car that slammed into her at 40 miles per hour, Chase, in town for a citywide site inspection, had stepped into its path to avoid a taxi careening toward her in the opposite direction. The impact broke bones in her face, legs, and arms, and left her immobilized in a Sydney hospital for six weeks. "I was pretty much crushed head to toe", recalls the president of Austin-based Conference and Meeting Planners International. Nearly two months after the horrific crash, Chase was still recovering, but able to get around by wheelchair. She began navigating the city, awkwardly forcing the boxy vehicle into tight hotel passageways and ill-equipped buildings. That's when she became aware of just how problematic transportation, accessibility, and overall accommodation can be for people with disabilities.

In an odd way, Chase, now fully recovered, is grateful for the experience. "[Accessibility] is a problem," Chase says, and an issue she grapples with regularly while planning meetings in foreign countries, and as a member of the Texas Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities and United Cerebral Palsy.

For the 500 million worldwide travelers who are blind, deaf, or have other physical impairments, navigating the world's hotels, conference centers, and public buildings is a serious hardship. And with few laws on the books and minimal enforcement of regulations, foreign hotels and facilities offer little help.

Ever since the 1990's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), citizens here have seen marked improvements in the way of ramps, Braille markers, auditory systems, and other devices in hotels; restaurants, museums, and hospitals. But the U.S. State Department suggests that in countries ranging from Italy (where building access laws exist, but are regularly ignored) to Russia (where reports say that people with disabilities themselves are ignored), it's another story.

Barriers large and small

Memphis, Tennessee-based freelance writer Alan Salomon recently attended a site inspection that took him to Venice, Rome, and Naples. What he found were a barrage of obstacles in Italian hotels that lacked ramps, disability-adapted bathrooms, or even wheelchairs on site for when he needed to rely on something more convenient and speedier than his walker. "The hotels there were like where the U.S. hotels were 25 years ago," says Salomon, whose injured left hip forces him to creep along an inch at a time.

What Salomon ran up against - slippery hardwood room floors, narrow elevator doors, and taxis not equipped for people in wheelchairs - is all too common. "There's no ADA in foreign countries," he notes, "so there's no mentality [to deal with visitors who have a disability]."

In this article, as in most discussions about disability accessibility, people in wheelchairs are a major focus, because they have to not only think about special travel considerations, but contend with architectural barriers too.

Access for those in wheelchairs has been so minimal in some foreign cities, says Sascha Block, who plans meetings in Asia, Africa, and South America as the communications director of the Westport, Connecticut-based housing company b-there.com, that for certain meetings, "we've had to warn people that they have to be ambulatory to participate."

Part of the problem for planners, warn industry experts, is that descriptive language can be tricky. Some planners get tripped up by the terms "accessible" and "adaptable," according to planner Ciritta B. Park, co-author of Accessible Meetings and Conventions (Association on Higher Education and Disability, 1992). Accessible simply means someone in a wheelchair can likely function in the room. But adaptable means it's been configured to meet the specific needs of people with disabilities. This includes showers with benches, grab bars, raised sinks, lowered bars in the closet for hanging clothes, and doors wide enough for a wheelchair to enter, for example.

"Just because a facility says it's accessible doesn't mean it is accessible," says Carol DeSouza, executive director for the Boston-based Association on Higher Education and Disability. "Just a couple of steps (as opposed to a flight) means it's accessible to [foreign facility managers]."

Pulling down fences

In many countries, government legislation has made it mandatory to accommodate those with disabilities. But without much enforcement, many venues don't comply. Several years ago, when Lucy Wong- Hernandez, executive director for Disabled People's International, needed to make arrangements for nearly 900 members of the Winnipeg, Canada-based disabilities organization for a meeting at the Inter-Continental Hotel in New Delhi, India, she found the doorways to be so narrow, it was impossible for even the smallest of wheelchairs to pass through. While some rooms were suitable for her needs, Hernandez found herself nearly 100 rooms short with nowhere to send her attendees in wheelchairs. Eventually, "the hotel widened the doors and built temporary ramps to access the restaurants on different terraces," she says, but only after Hernandez brought the problem to their attention.

Particularly in Western Europe, some countries are responding to the needs of travelers with disabilities. In England, for example, the 1995 People with Disabilities Discrimination Act established measures to end discrimination against people with disabilities with mandatatory mobility access requirements for all public buildings. Progressive steps in Germany include guidelines for "barrier-free" buildings, and even free public transport and, like the U.S., special parking facilities. But actions like these are the exception rather than the rule. In contrast, in China, according to studies conducted by the U.S. State Department, citizens with disabilities maintain a "pariah status." And efforts to make public buildings accessible are simply "lax."

Steps for planners

Still, even in countries where poor compliance is the norm, adjustments can be made. The key? Take action early. As soon as possible, ask attendees about amenities or services they'll need abroad. Ramps, for example, can often be easily installed, but planners need to ask early. Moreover, attendees with disabilities will be more likely to attend a meeting if they know a planner is thinking about their needs in advance. Park's Accessible Meetings and Conventions helps spell out details to look for during a site inspection.

Tips in Park's guide suggest that on site inspections a tape measure may be a planner's best tool. By measuring the doorway width and space between the bed and the wall (32 inches minimum), planners will know whether or not those in wheelchairs will be able to maneuver in the room. Also, note how smooth the curbs are around town for travelers in wheelchairs. At convention facilities, check to see if there are more than revolving doors.

Attendees with sight or hearing disabilities need Braille and auditory guides in rooms, at dinner tables, and at meetings. This includes safety information, television key pads, hotel keys, and menus. Ask if the property has an emergency visual alert system for deaf attendees, an alarm system for blind guests, or at least, closed captioning and TDD phones in the rooms.

Planners securing sign language interpreters need to be sure the sign language is being translated into American Sign Language and not some other form of English.

The most important aspect is to allow plenty of time for requests from attendees who have a disability and very open lines of communication between planners and attendees. Says b-there.com's Block, "It's essential that there be more awareness of this [group of travelers]."

MAKING STRIDES

How tough will it be to find accommodations and services for people with disabilities overseas? Here are the countries where meetings are most frequently held in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, according to 1999 statistics from the International Congress & Convention Association, and what considerations for people with disabilities can be expected in each. (Information on considerations for people with disabilities provided by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released February, 2000.)

EUROPE

United Kingdom - Government regulations require that all new buildings be accessible to those with disabilities, and that all taxicabs be wheelchair accessible by the end of 2000. While some facilities offer improved accessibility, very old buildings often do not. The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act requires that restaurants print menus in Braille, among other provisions.

Germany - A proactive government successfully enforces services and amenities for people with disabilities, including free public transport and special parking facilities. This is one of the most accessible European countries, in that 98 percent of government buildings have modified their structures for access.

Finland - Since the 1970s, laws have mandated that new public buildings be accessible. In addition, many local municipalities provide free public transport for those with disabilities.

AFRICA

South Africa - South Africans are increasingly sensitive to those with disabilities, especially after Nelson Mandela's government prohibited discrimination against such people in its constitution. Still, property owners regularly dismiss government laws requiring buildings to be accessible, particularly since these regulations are rarely enforced.

Kenya - Not only are those with disabilities often denied licenses to drive, but there are no legislative mandates requiring public buildings or transportation to provide accessibility for those with physical disabilities.

Egypt - The government has launched a strong media campaign to raise awareness of people with disabilities. There is no legislation demanding accessibility for public buildings or transportation, but those with disabilities may ride free on government-owned mass transit buses.

SOUTH PACIFIC/ASIA

Australia - Federal laws don't require disability access to public buildings, but powerful lobby groups have encouraged businesses to make their own improvements in recent years.

Japan - Though buildings are not required to be disability accessible, tax breaks are given to those who build wide entrances and elevators into their properties to accommodate wheelchairs. Only limited public transportation access is available.

Korea - Public access for those with disabilities is limited, though legislation requires new buildings to include bathroom facilities and entryways to be specially designed for people with disabilities. Existing government buildings must provide the same amenities within the next six years.

LATIN AMERICA

Brazil - Awareness programs have been launched here to focus on better access to both public buildings and transportation. Still, many buildings remain inaccessible, and though legislation has demanded that buses become accessible as well, only a handful of city buses (6 percent in Rio de Janeiro, for example) have complied. Argentina - A law passed in 1994 requires parks, public buildings, and other areas to become accessible. While many trains and facilities in larger cities have been modified, other forms of transportation and properties throughout the country are still inaccessible.

Mexico - Though 27 of the country's 31 states enacted laws to protect people with disabilities, only public buildings in Mexico City are required to provide access for people with disabilities.

WHERE TO GET INFORMATION

Association on Higher Education and Disability, AHEAD, (617) 287-3880, http://www.ahead.org/

Offers general training programs, publications, and other services to promote awareness about people with disabilities, as well as guides like Accessible Meetings and Conventions, which list tips on planning meetings for attendees with disabilities. Mobility International USA, (541) 3431284 (Tel/TTY), http://www.miusa.org/

Provides specific tips on conducting events and programs abroad where visitors with disabilities will be involved. Offers publications to this end, as well as advocacy programs for visitors with disabilities who visit public spaces throughout the world.

Networld Inc., (973) 884-7474, http://www.networldinc.com/

A network of DMCs throughout the world in countries such as Argentina, Austria, Belgium, and China providing complete travel services, including information about facilities well-suited for attendees with disabilities. For a particular DMC's phone number, address, and contact information, email the company's Parsippany, New Jersey, headquarters at: networld@networldinc.com .

(Copyright Bill Communications, May 2000).

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