Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 29, Tarita Davenock, a social worker helping adults and kids with special needs, decided to switch careers and get into the travel business.
The Nanaimo, B.C. resident was already a seasoned traveller, so the switch was a natural one. She quickly found a job with a travel agency where she worked for 15 years before starting up her own company, first Tarita’s Travel Connections and more recently, Travel for All.
“Travel should be inclusive — not exclusive,” is her working motto.
Even when MS forced her to use a wheelchair later in life, it didn’t dampen Davenock’s wanderlust, and her trips added to her ability to track down the best accessible destinations and accommodations that a certified special-needs travel advocate needed.
“It blows my mind how underserviced the accessible travel sector is,” says Davenock.
“This is something I’m so passionate about because I have a disability, and when it started to affect how I was travelling I realized I wasn’t alone.
“If you look up travel accessibility in Canada, you’ll find the odd cruise, but there isn’t one full-service accessible travel agency that will do whatever type of travel you want, whether it’s going to Costa Rica or Nepal,” she says.
And like the Humphrey’s negative travel experiences, Davenock has over the years helped many clients who came to her with horror stories about how some vacations advertised as “accessible” turned out to be anything but, where they found themselves stranded with hotel beds that were too high, showers that were not accessible, and even where the doors to their rooms were too narrow for wheelchair passage.
“There are a lot of companies that say they can arrange accessible travel, but they are very limited in where they can send you, especially really fun things to do and active adventures for people who happen to be in wheelchairs,” she says adding: “I’ve been to many of those places, so I know first hand.”
Davenock also points out how travel ads, and almost all advertising, is locked into what she calls the “Ken and Barbie” image of beautiful people in beautiful settings, which stigmatizes people with disabilities.
“If they used reality-based images that include people with disabilities, someone in a wheelchair or with a Seeing Eye dog for example, it would encourage even more people to travel.
“Many in the travel industry also assume people with disabilities don’t have much money, but there are many who do and they are willing to pay extra to go to a place they know meets their comfort level. Once companies realize just how lucrative accessible travel is they will get involved,” she adds.
Davenock says travel companies must invest in training their staff to be able to arrange appropriate vacations for customers with special needs.
According to a study by ratings firm Fifth Quadrant Analytics, people with disabilities (PWD) is “an emerging market the size of China” numbering about 1.3 billion.
The study estimates “their friends and family add another 2.2 billion potential consumers that act on their emotional connection to PWD. Together, they control over $8 trillion in annual disposable income globally. Companies seeking new ways to create value for stakeholders have a strong interest in attracting the spending of this increasingly powerful cohort.”
And the World Health Organization sees the number of people with some form of disability growing dramatically as an aging population increases the demand for accessibility in all facets of the tourism industry.