"It's very dangerous to say we've come a long way. We've not." Those were the cautious words of Lord Morris of Manchester, speaking last week about the progress made by people with disabilities since he introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act in 1970.
The law, the first of its kind in the world, heralded a sea change in attitudes towards people with disabilities, including within the travel industry. One of the first organisations to lobby for better access to travel and leisure was the charity Tourism for All UK, founded 30 years ago.
Brian Seaman, Tourism for All's head of consultancy, is upbeat about the changes he's seen in recent years. "I have been measuring toilets for 16 years [since joining Tourism for All]. It's not something I'd like as an epitaph, but I now have very few complaints compared with when I started," he says. "Things have improved, not to say that it's perfect."
He points to the shift in the kind of accommodation that people with disabilities can now expect. "A lot of it was institutionalised – like ghettos for disabled people. But now the mainstream has opened up and large travel companies have taken an interest and noted the fact that they need to gear themselves up for this [section of the market]."
Mr Seaman believes that there is also a greater understanding in the industry about providing a good standard of service to people with disabilities. "For example, Intercontinental Hotels – which includes Holiday Inn Express and Crowne Plaza and has a variety of rates to suit all pockets – has a big training programme for staff, so that they are more comfortable in helping disabled people."
Philip Scott, managing director of Can Be Done, which specialises in providing bespoke holidays around the world for people with disabilities, is also positive about the changing experience of travelling abroad. "Spain is exceptionally good for the disabled traveller, and North America, too. There's probably the greatest range of facilities for travellers with disabilities in the Canary Islands," he says.
But he acknowledges that some destinations still have a way to go and that progressive legislation isn't always interpreted properly on the ground. "In Europe, France is probably the worst, with Italy a close second – because there is no real infrastructure for disabled travellers.
"In Spain, we can get accessible transfers arranged between airport and hotel in nearly every major city. In France, outside Paris, it's almost impossible. In fact, we had to buy our own equipment for the hotel that we use for Disneyland Paris because we couldn't source it in France."
One of the latest products being offered by Can Be Done is a new European river cruise on a fully accessible boat out of Amsterdam. Other news for the traveller with disabilities includes the UK National Parks' new guide to accessible activities in Britain's National Parks (nationalparks.gov.uk /visiting/accessforall.htm).
And The Co-Operative Travel has also expanded its disabled-friendly high-street agencies, increasing, from 42 to 89, the number of branches that have staff with specialist training, provide essential information such as airport facilities, and are equipped with power-assisted doors, portable hearing loops and visual alarms in store.
There may still be a way to go for travellers with disabilities, but we are, at least, on the right road.
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