A new TV series sent 11 people with disabilities on an arduous trek across Nicaragua. It reflects a growing market, says Mark Rowe

The four-week trek across the southern neck of Nicaragua, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, features two wheelchair users, including Ade Adepitan, the Paralympic wheelchair basketball player, a man with spina bifida, a blind man, a deaf man and a number of amputees. The travellers, led by a former SAS guide, encounter tropical rainforest, volcanoes, a vast lake and harsh desert scrubland. The programme focuses on the challenges that confront travellers with special needs - such as how to push your wheelchair through dense undergrowth - and not all the travellers completed the journey. But a major aim was to highlight the possibilities, capabilities and opportunities for disabled travellers.

"It makes for challenging viewing," says a BBC spokeswoman. "It doesn't hit that patronising tone of 'didn't they do well?' Able-bodied people do these kind of treks, so why not people with disabilities?" The participants included Amar Latif, who has retinitis pigmentosa and whose sight deteriorated in his teens. He now has 5 per cent vision. "It was a difficult challenge and it wasn't stage-managed," said Mr Latif. "People had to give me orientation details from time to time but the physical challenge was just as it would be for fully able-bodied people. I'd hope that viewers will see that blind people can achieve more or less the same as able-bodied people, irrespective of their ability."

By emphasising the ability of travellers with disabilities to tackle such a trip, the programme has highlighted the fact that the pool of companies offering "intrepid" holidays to this market is limited. In response to this, Mr Latif launched his own expedition travel company for blind and visually impaired people, Traveleyes, earlier this year. Traveleyes' policy is for blind and fully sighted people to travel on a one-to-one ratio. Fully sighted travellers are given training in advance. Destinations include Marrakech and the Sahara. "All I've really wanted to do was see the world like anybody else," said Mr Latif. "Some travel organisations have a rather patronising view of blind people. I looked around and there weren't many organisations that offered the level of independence and flexibility and reasonable prices that I wanted."

Andy Wright, managing director of Accessible Travel and a wheelchair user, has seen an increase in demand for such travel. "A number of more intrepid travellers tend to be people who have had some life-changing experience, such as being injured in a car crash. People in that situation tend to react in two ways. Some feel as if their life has come to an end. But others essentially say, 'I want to do things I'd never have dreamed of doing when I was able-bodied.' They want to see the pyramids or go to Machu Picchu and show they are not written off. We had a guide who uses a wheelchair and he went to Cambodia. This meant he was going to get lifted up and down steps and pushed around, but so what?"

One of the main sources of empowerment for people with disabilities looking to take more adventurous holidays is the rise of electronic media, according to Mr Latif. "We are putting Lonely Planet's guides into electronic format," he said. "Blind people can use speaking computers to read up on a place and make their own decisions. Typically, disabled people would rely on their carer to decide what they will do on a holiday and you get comments such as 'well Jack, this is what I think we'll do today'. That doesn't have to be the case now."

While the 1995 Disability and Discrimination Act has also provided an impetus, it does not apply to aircraft (an Air Access Code of Conduct was published in 2003 but it is non-binding), or overseas accommodation. This fact will not lessen the burden on disabled travellers headed for remote destinations and who are reliant on air travel to get there. The problem was highlighted in 2004 when Bob Ross, who has cerebral palsy, was awarded £1,336 for being charged £18 by Ryanair to use an airport wheelchair. Ryanair announced that a 50p "wheelchair" levy would be imposed on every passenger, while the Court of Appeal later ruled that both airline and airport were responsible.

"The travel and tourism industry has been making improvements to accessibility," said Keith Richards, head of consumer affairs with the Association of British Travel Agents. "But like many other industries there's still room for improvement. It is clear that increasing numbers of people who have some form of disability are taking holidays, and many more want to spend their money on travel but currently don't."

But Mr Wright cautioned that while technology and legislation have offered a greater degree of empowerment, many challenges remain. "This is definitely a growth area," he said. "The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is still people. Disabled people who want to be more intrepid will have to deal with attitudes from airlines and hotels that leave a lot to be desired. It's inevitable that we will still face a lot of frustration. Some will say that, whatever it takes, they'll travel, but you still require an immense amount of help."

'Beyond Boundaries' is due to start on BBC2 on Tuesday 11 October. For more information on disabled travel visit www.bbc.co.uk/ouch. The UK's first accessible holiday show takes place from 7-8 October at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire. For more information, visit www.accessibleholidayshow.co.uk or call 01452 729739

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