Travellers with disabilities still face challenges, 30 years after the first attempt to meet their needs, says Mark MacKenzie

This year sees the 30th anniversary of a report which, when published, represented arguably the first serious attempt in this country to address the needs of tourists with disabilities. When it first appeared in 1976, Tourism - the Social Need found an industry so poorly equipped for the task that four years later it led to the creation of the Holiday Care Service, a charity whose sole objective was to tackle the problem.

Two years ago that organisation changed it's name to Tourism for All, and today it is at the forefront of the long-running campaign to ensure Britain's tourist attractions are genuinely open to everybody.

"The idea [of the original report] was to plug an information gap," says Brian Seaman of Tourism for All. "Too often, people would travel to their accommodation and then not be able to get into the bathroom. In the days before the internet they had to rely on the information in a brochure being accurate." Invariably it wasn't.

Government statistics estimate there are around 10 million people registered as disabled in the UK, of which Visit Britain estimates roughly 2.5 million are regular travellers. "In terms of spending power the figures we have are quite general," says Mr Seaman, "but as a market sector we're talking billions of pounds."

With so much cash sloshing about, has anything changed in the three decades since the report? In England, more enlightened tourism providers have, since 1987, been able to sign up to the National Accessible Scheme, a voluntary accreditation system for establishments providing good access. Run by, among others, Visit Britain, with just 450 members in a marketplace of thousands the uptake is, says Mr Seaman, far from comprehensive. In April of this year those providers that are on board were published in a new guide, Britain's Accessible Places to Stay, yet Tourism for All's long-term goal remains for such guides to one day become redundant.

Significantly, says Mr Seaman, much progress has been made by the UK's larger hotel chains, Best Western being a notable example. While improvements are due in part to government legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, many chains have not only improved access but use mystery shoppers to test its effectiveness. Attracting tourists with disabilities is, of course, dependent on the co-operation of local authorities. "Brighton is an example of a city that includes a number of steep hills," says Mr Seaman, "and the local council there recently carried out an 'access audit' to determine how it might improve facilities."

Of the UK's 10 million registered disabled, Mr Seaman points to the fact that "only around 5 per cent actually use a wheelchair. The remainder comprise a range of disabilities, and improving access information for these groups represents a real challenge for the future."

One country setting something of a benchmark is Denmark. Its Accessibility Labelling Scheme not only ranks facilities by their disability provision, but also the range of impairments they cater for, from asthma to reading difficulties.

The scheme operates under the auspices of the Danish Accessibility Association, a non-profit organisation that was formed as recently as 2003. "While the scheme does run nationwide," says Alan Sorenson of Visit Denmark, "we do have a number of stand-out regions that are being particularly innovative in this area. West Jutland, for example, has undertaken major works on wooden footpaths to make sure all its beaches now have disabled access."

So are we likely to see a similarly comprehensive scheme in Britain any time soon? Brian Seaman is confident. "Thirty years ago this was an extremely marginal issue," he says. "We're realistic enough to know that some hotels will never be accessible to everyone but in terms of information on those that are, a new website appears almost every month."

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