New York Times Article!
For Disabled Travelers, Many an Obstacle Along the Way
By SARA J. WELCH
In March, Carol Cocuzzi and her boss flew to Denver on a business trip. When they arrived, two men who worked for a company hired by the airline came aboard to help Ms. Cocuzzi, who uses a wheelchair, get off the plane.
The normal procedure is to transfer passengers from their seat onto a “straight chair”— an armless chair that can roll down the aisle — and then wheel the person off the plane, where a wheelchair is waiting. But in this case, the situation went awry.
“One of the men looked at my boss and asked, ‘Can she stand up?’ ” recalled Ms. Cocuzzi, who is a vice president at Accessibility Development Associates, a Pittsburgh firm that advises businesses on complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “She answered, ‘She’s sitting right there. Why don’t you ask her?’ “
Ms. Cocuzzi, who has brittle bones because of a genetic disease, told the men that she needed to be lifted and could not raise her arms. “One of them asked me, ‘Could you put your arms around my neck and hold on?’ ” she said. “They didn’t get it.”
Ultimately, Ms. Cocuzzi said, she was helped by a baggage handler who had brought her wheelchair onto the jetway. “The baggage guy said, ‘My brother has a spinal cord injury and I lift him every day,’ ” Ms. Cocuzzi said.
Accessibility for disabled passengers is mandated by the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed in 1986. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which bars discrimination against the disabled, was passed in 1990.
Even so, many people who are familiar with the issue said that experiences like Ms. Cocuzzi’s were all too common. Businesses, they say, may be following the letter of the regulations in accessibility, but not the spirit of them. All too often, they say, companies fall short in the way they accommodate people.
“The hospitality industry has done a fairly good job of making the physical aspects of travel accessible,” said Cricket Park, former deputy executive director for the Association on Higher Education and Disability and now an independent meeting planner in Columbus, Ohio. “But there is still work to be done as far as educating people so that the attitude toward disability is one of welcome, rather than something they have to put up with. Unless someone has a relative or other personal experience with a disability, it’s just not on people’s radar.”
“There is major customer service inconsistency,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group based in Chicago that researches travel by people with disabilities. According to an Open Doors survey from 2005, more than 80 percent of adults with disabilities who have traveled by air encountered obstacles. Their two most common complaints were the handling of devices like wheelchairs or scooters and the quality of the contracted workers, such as those who were unable to assist Ms. Cocuzzi.
Mr. Lipp is optimistic the situation will improve. In mid-May, he met with representatives of several airlines and their trade group, the Air Transport Association, to address these complaints. “The fact that 13 airlines showed up is amazing,” he said. “They’re really starting to open their eyes.”
The airlines trade group helped organize the meeting. “We’re always looking for ways to help our members improve their delivery of services and ensure that they comply with the law,” said Sophy Chen, a senior attorney at the trade association, who attended. The Open Doors survey showed that 71 percent of disabled adults — more than 21 million people — traveled in the last two years. And a 2002 study revealed that disabled people spent $13.6 billion annually on travel.
“This is a huge market,” said Joan W. Stein, chief executive of Accessibility Development Associates, and Ms. Cocuzzi’s boss. Census Bureau figures released in April showed that 51.2 million people, or 18 percent of the population, had some sort of disability.
“That doesn’t even touch the whole demographic of seniors,” Ms. Stein added.
Mr. Lipp agreed. “There are a lot of mature travelers who don’t self-identify as disabled but could use a walker or a large-print menu,” he said. “They won’t necessarily ask for it ahead of time, but if it’s offered to them, they’ll take it.” Open Doors estimates that disabled and mature travelers spend $38 billion on travel. “This segment of the population has been overlooked,” said Suzanne D. Cook, senior vice president of research at the Travel Industry Association of America. “Given that aging and disability are correlated, there will be millions more of these travelers.”
Level Travel, an organization in Coatesville, Pa., has a Web site (http://www.leveltravel/ .com) that ranks hotels and restaurants in major cities on their accessibility for four groups: older travelers and travelers with mobility, hearing or vision impairment.
Jamie Sharples, Level Travel’s president, said he founded the company three years ago because of inconsistencies he found in the travel industry. “We wanted to provide a standard instead of getting someone’s opinion” on whether a facility was accessible, he said.
Kevin Maher, a vice president who handles adherence to regulations at the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said he had not heard any complaints that accessibility for the disabled was inconsistent within hotel chains. “Our industry is heavily franchised, though, so that may occasionally create some disconnect,” he said.
Marcus Engel, a motivational speaker in St. Louis, Mo., who is blind and travels with a seeing-eye dog, said that contrary to the experiences of many disabled travelers, he had few complaints. “My career is about teaching people to overcome problems, so I may gloss over things, but in 11 years of traveling I’ve only had one true case of discrimination,” he said. In January, he was returning home from a business trip and was refused entry into a taxi cab because of his dog, he said.
Mr. Engel added that he was suing the cab driver. “I hate to sue anyone, but when I give presentations people ask me what they should do if they’re refused admittance anywhere,” he said. “My answer is that it’s a question of civil rights. Dr. King fought for everyone’s civil rights, and I’m going to fight for mine.”