The etiquette of universal access in tourism

This article was written by Des Langkilde, and was first published as Accessible Tourism Etiquette on Tourism Tattler (thank you Des!): it’s republished here because it’s vital information that you need.


How does one communicate with people with disabilities? What language should one use to write or talk about people with disabilities? What is the etiquette when meeting a blind person or a wheelchair user? How much can one expect of a person with a disability, and what help should be given or offered?

The booklet ‘Sawubona Disability – Myths, Manners, Do’s & Don’ts about Disability’ [sic] published by the QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) has some of the answers.

“Many people without disabilities will have felt shy or embarrassed when meeting people with disabilities. People tend either to blurt out commonly used but discriminatory language, or tie themselves up in knots trying not to offend. That is why QASA is proud to have published the Sawubona Disability booklet,” says Ari Seirlis, CEO of QASA.

Tourism Tattler has reproduced the QASA booklet for on-screen viewing (flip-page format) here or for quick downloading (PDF 2.7MB) here.

The language of disability

The language of disability has been changing for quite a while, and it continues to change. This is a vitally important issue. Individuals with disabilities are considered to be disabled as a result of society’s discrimination, of which language is a big part.

Mainly due to ignorance, many incorrect terms and phrases are used to describe disabilities and people who have disabilities. However, people are becoming increasingly aware of the way in which the language used to refer to disability can reinforce negative stereotypes, even without the speaker realising it.

Certain words or phrases may give offence. Avoid using language that suggests that disabled people are always frail or dependent on others, or which makes disabled people objects of pity, such as “suffers from” or “a victim of”. It is accepted practice that phrases should, if possible, put the person first, for example “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”.

Although there are no concrete rules, it is helpful to understand why some terms are preferred to others.

Inappropriate terms and phrases include:

  • “Inconvenienced”
  • “Handi-capable”
  • “Special”
  • “In spite of his disability”
  • “Overcame his handicap”


  • Avoid clichés.
  • Do not communicate your admiration or pity purely on account of a person’s disability.
  • Each person you meet is an individual and may prefer the use of different or specific terminology.
  • Disability terminology and the disability community are constantly evolving.
  • Treat a person in an entirely non-judgmental manner.
  • Restrain your curiosity: if you meet a person with a disability for the first time, don’t immediately ask them “what happened to you?”
  • Be confident and relax – If you feel embarrassed or you are unsure of what exactly to do, don’t worry. It is quite normal to be nervous of doing the “wrong” thing, but your efforts will more than likely be appreciated.
  • Always be patient – Some disabled people need a little more time than usual for everyday tasks such as entering a building or understanding the answer to a query.
  • Look beyond the disability – There is a person in front of you, not a disability.
  • Important to acknowledge – The environment within which a person with a disability operates is often the disabling element.

For more information visit

What is accessible tourism?

According to a resolution adopted by the UNWTO General Assembly in 2005, accessible tourism is ‘Tourism For All’. It’s about making travel and hospitality more reachable and pleasurable for travellers with universal access requirements. It’s also about sensitising yourself to the language of disability.

A more concise definition is: Accessible tourism enables people with access requirements, including mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions of access, to function independently and with equity and dignity through the delivery of universally designed tourism products, services and environments. This definition is inclusive of all people including those travelling with children in prams, people with disabilities and seniors. (Source: Darcy & Dickson, 2009, A Whole-of-Life Approach to Tourism: The Case for Accessible Tourism Experiences. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management – p. 34).

Quantifying the accessible tourism market

As of 2008, there were more than 50 million persons with disabilities in Europe, and more than 600 million around the world. When expanded to include all beneficiaries of accessible tourism, as defined above, the number grows to some 130 million people affected in Europe alone. In addition to the social benefits, the market represents an opportunity for new investment and new service requirements, rarely provided by key players in the tourism sector.

According to ENAT, the European Network for Accessible Tourism, accessible tourism includes:

  • Barrier-free destinations: infrastructure and facilities;
  • Transport – by air, land and sea, suitable for all users;
  • High quality services – delivered by trained staff;
  • Activities, exhibits, attractions – allowing participation in tourism by everyone;
  • Marketing, booking systems, web sites and services – information accessible to all.

Specific needs and requirements

Specific problems found by travellers or tourists with disabilities include:

  • Inaccessible, or only partly accessible, web sites;
  • Lack of accessible airport transfer;
  • Lack of wheelchair accessible vehicles;
  • Lack of well-adapted hotel rooms;
  • Lack of professional staff capable of dealing with accessibility issues;
  • Lack of reliable information about a specific attraction’s level of accessibility;
  • Lack of accessible restaurants, bars, and other facilities;
  • Lack of adapted toilets in restaurants and public places; Inaccessible streets and sidewalks;
  • Lack of technical aids and disability equipment such as wheelchairs, bath chairs and toilet raisers.

Europe and the United States of America are home to the majority of the existing companies in this niche. However, companies worldwide are starting to appear as the result of a growing need, largely driven by senior tourism, due to increasing life expectancy in developed countries. The United States requires ADA compliant ramp access to virtually all businesses and public places.

Accessible tourism in South Africa

In line with the principles of South Africa’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA) initiated the Universal Accessibility Grading Scheme, which aims to encourage the hospitality sector to address challenges faced by the disabled and is the first country in Africa to introduce disability grading for the accessible tourism industry.

The Universal Accessibility Grading Scheme provides tourism establishments with guidelines on factors such as slip-resistant surfaces, size of door openings, lettering on signage, flashing lights on phones and voice amplification. Depending on compliance, hospitality establishments can achieve ratings on 4 levels, from Bronze to Platinum, assisting disabled visitors in planning their trip.

There are many South African establishments with excellent track records in this regard already, such as SANParks, where most of the camps and visitor destinations in all of the parks provide ramped access. In many cases accessible ablution facilities are provided and many of the parks boast selected accommodation units that have been adapted for use by the mobility and visually impaired.

Further reading

How can This Tourism Week help you?

I’m Martin Hatchuel, a tourism practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in the sector, and I write and publish This Tourism Week as an informed, insightful look at issues affecting tourism in South Africa. (And I’ve been doing it since August, 2002.)

Backed by a team that includes web professionals (iBall Media), a graphic designer (Jo Hugo of Design,Etc.), PR consultants (interface by goji), Tourism Tattler (the official trade journal on South African Tourism), and others, I’m here to help you develop all your communications tools: text (media releases, reports, business case studies, stories), strategies, web sites, apps, images, adverts, brochures, printing, events, and more.

Please contact me: 084 951 0574 or


Please tell your friends and colleagues about This Tourism Week and ask them to subscribe – online or by email.

Now go away on holiday – it’s in the economy’s best interests. And have a great tourism week!

Martin Hatchuel
Chartered Public Relations Professional

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