Today
Wed 22 September 2021

Penny Pepper shares her experiences of trips away and why, despite doing everything to mitigate it, the challenges of travel continue to reinforce disabled people’s second-class status

Imagine this. You’ve driven for six hours, tiring even for a passenger. You finally drag yourself wearily into a hotel looking forward to a rest – only to be greeted with apathy, alarm, and sometimes hostility. Welcome to the world of the disabled traveller. 

Travel haunts the news headlines for all of us in light of the Coronavirus and its variants. We might have the traffic light system, but I’m not alone in expressing confusion. Yet, like many, the disabled traveller feels wunderlust calling, and for us, confusion and obstacles are on another planet of difficulty.

This alternate journey is never easy and looks to get worse as new barriers replicate and diversify under the thrall of the virus, even in the name of economic recovery.

There’s no denying that, since my youth, travel for disabled people has evolved. Companies such as Sensory Traveller, Limitless Travel and Enable Holidays offer holidays with the reassurance of access. Such access often comes at a higher price and there are never guarantees. Apart from knowing the basics of access, it is also true that many disabled people remain nervous about ongoing Coronavirus safety measures, particularly as many were in the higher shielding groups. 

Ultimately, as is often the case within the capitalist world, if you have the money you remove barriers at an individual level – mostly in the form of extra people who will ‘carry you high’, for example; a friend scaling with a wheelchair, up the steps of Machu Picchu.

I’ve travelled the night buses of New York City, gazed at the Atlantic across to Morocco, seen the sights in Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. But I’m the original staycation expert. Venturing from Bodmin to Edinburgh, I’ve had a sandwich in Sandwich and a bakewell in Bakewell. 

When I started these travels – which were mostly cheap and self-catering – access was piecemeal but I was tenacious and persevered. Then, as now, triple-checking and phone calls would not guarantee accessibility accuracy. But this changed when I began to tour my spoken word shows and budget hotels were the usual affordable option. 

For the Daisy Festival in Guildford, I researched a pleasant place via a booking site, reassured on the phone that all my needs could be met. Arriving with my PA, there was no access at the front door and, when we found the “accessible reception”, the member of staff walked away. So far, so rude. The room itself was the epitome of inaccessibility – crowded with furniture and a bed so low to the floor that even my PA couldn’t manage it. Upon enquiring, out came a reply to fill the disabled traveller with unapologetic rage: “Other wheelchair-bound have managed okay..” Not great as your performance beckons. 

Then there’s my WOMAD festival appearance. The selected hotel was delightfully ancient, passing all of the access requirements on booking and calling – but, on arriving, there was no accessible bathroom. The host was helpful and created a passable bathing area. I did my slot at the poetry shack freshly washed – in the end. There was no price reduction for my stay.

Many travellers scream with me. 

For Mik Scarlet, a broadcaster, producer and equality advisor: “I arrived at the hotel to find it was up steps. After much debating, we were moved to another hotel with level access, but to a standard room. For 10 days, I could not shower… To wash was a sink-sat-on-the-loo job.”

Mik’s story is typical, echoing the experience of thousands of people; the details depressingly familiar. Huge steps into showers, beds too low or too high. Attitudes that border on abuse. 

Now let’s talk about Premier Inn. A call-out for experiences included: “Premier Inn was shockingly bad. I phoned to say I had an assistance dog. On the first call, they wanted to talk to my husband, and actually asked if I had one… on arrival, I still had to get a manager to arrange a suitable (worse) room.”

My last stay at one of the hotel chain’s establishments – to visit my elderly mother after a year apart due to the pandemic – brings me to my latest tale of woe. Generally, Premier Inn has the best facilities in terms of wet-room showers, spacious rooms, and what we call bed raisers. There would be no beds on the floor for me this time, I hoped.

Disabled travellers have a routine, here’s mine: research, online booking, choose accessible rooms, immediately email my PI on the designated address to request raisers, a wet-room shower and to have the PA’s room as near to mine as possible, throwing in questions on their COVID procedures. Sometimes, there is an email response – I always have to follow-up with at least one phone call. The website advises trying the hotel but this rarely works as no one answers. I do my best and hope some more.

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But nothing had worked – none of my requests had been met.

I came back home with an injury, and weariness turned to anger. I wrote to the CEO of Whitbread Plc, which owns the Premier Inn group, who wrote back with a fast apology. I am currently in discussions with her senior colleagues.

“I’m often quoted as saying that accessible travel can be challenging, stressful, and sometimes disastrous, it can also be freeing, empowering, and absolutely wonderful,” says Carrie-Ann Lightley, one of the UK’s leading accessible travel bloggers and head of marketing at AccessAble. “The key to making a challenging travel experience more accessible is information.

“Give disabled people the information we need to decide if a place is suitable for us. Not sweeping statements like ‘fully accessible’, not web pages which say ‘call to confirm your needs’, but detailed, honest accessibility information. Because information is power, for everyone, but particularly for disabled people.”

The apology from Premier Inn is satisfying but is hardly the answer – because, yet again, we come back to inequality. The Equality Act 2010 never seems useful and the exasperating, interminable creation of new barriers – exacerbated by the Coronavirus crisis – reinforces disabled people’s second-class status, whether it’s a trip to Bognor or Dubai.

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