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A partnership in hospitality and tourism to improve experiences for people with disabilities
By Saada Branker

A woman with dark hair, wearing dark rimmed glasses and a business jacket, smiles at the camera.
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How can we better serve people with disabilities (PWDs) as they travel? This question, and the conversations sparked, are at the heart of a partnership intent on propelling change in how we regard disabilities. One changemaker is the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. With 3,000 students, it’s the largest college of its kind in the US—primarily a management school based in Orlando with programs embedded in the hospitality industry.

Rosen College has partnered with  TravelAbility, an organization working within the travel industry to improve the travel experience for PWDs. To find answers of real impact, Rosen College students are accessing a learning module entitled: “TravelAbility: Filling the Gap in Hospitality,” a self-paced series of case studies, tips, and training videos.

Dr. Alan Fyall

Is the associate dean of Rosen College. He says they came to realize they could be doing more in terms of social impacts and societal challenges—something their students have started doing. Last June, the state of Florida hosted the Special Olympics USA Games. Fyall recalls how Rosen College students got involved through volunteering. He believes a partnership with TravelAbility is an opportunity that’s bringing “even more awareness to students of what’s out there, what’s important, and what the industry can do to help PWDs feel welcomed as guests without feeling alienated.”

Gisele Canova

Going into her fifth year, Gisele is an instructor and internship coordinator at Rosen College. Asked how this partnership focusing on PWDs came about, she explains that the ideas started last June at the Emerging Markets Summit hosted by the TravelAbility team in Orlando. “We saw the speakers, and we learned so many things that we knew we had to bring that to the students.”

Jake Steinman

Jake Steinman is the founder and CEO of TravelAbility, which began as form of commercial advocacy within the travel industry in 2019. Each disability has its groups, he says, referring to the eco system of advocacy organizations. Their job, he explains, is to push accessibility through legislation, lobbying, and activism. TravelAbility’s job is to approach accessibility from a “completely different point of view” which is to focus on the business case of why increasing accessibility is the right investment.

Q1: How did you know that the time is right to use this type of module?

Gisele: Through talking to students. We also have discussion posts in class, and I read what they say. They’re saying that they want to have a purpose now. They don’t just want to go in and do their job and leave. They want to belong. They want to make a difference, and they want to be aware of their surroundings, to see everything. That’s how they feel fulfilled; it’s by having a purpose and having a company they believe in.

Q2: Is it also integrated into the P.R.E.P. program? Tell us about that and how the accessibility module can complement what students take on as opportunities for their portfolios.

Gisele: A great example was earlier today. We had a workshop with Wheel the World for P.R.E.P., which is a series of extracurricular activities that the students go through and double add to their resumes. Not just the work experience, but all the activities they participated in: the workshops, the events, the people that they met. So, they can list everything up to 250 extra hours of involvement.

Alan: How we describe it is: You qualify with your B.S. in hospitality management. When you’re going for work, everybody’s got a degree. What else have you got? So, we’ve built a program whereby this is resume building, it’s diversifying their interests, it’s opening their eyes to so many more opportunities.

Q3: And how did you source the components to build the learning module?

Jake: Well, we’re sharing what we developed for The Accessibility Playbook. It’s a 40-page playbook that includes 75 links to PowerPoint presentations, 90 training videos, and other products and innovations. It was a compendium of everything we learned in the previous three years. It focuses on the business case and the mainstreaming of accessibility. Every tip was vetted through by a different, appropriate disability organization. So, there was back and forth and that’s why it took Destination British Columbia, which shared the final tips with us, a year just to put all this together. Then we have micro training videos for hotels. We’re always looking for, excuse the expression, the gateway drug that’s going to get people into accessibility. And with some, it’s just the ease with which they can do it. … The number one problem, in surveys, that people with disabilities and wheelchairs have is really heavy doors. So we have a video that we can send (hotels) of somebody that can turn a screw on a canister above the door. That’s an easy fix.

The most difficult thing in our hotels is that their mindset around accessibility is fear. How do we use language to overcome that? I had a meeting with somebody with a hotel management group … what we came up with was ‘the aging traveler’ and that made them feel less fear because they understood that.

Alan: I think one of the things that we’re very conscious of is changing the mindset of students. It’s trying to move on from what is a statutory requirement to something like ‘Actually, if you have an accessible Convention Center, just think how much better that Convention Center is going to be.’ So a more proactive, progressive mindset rather than one that’s just, ‘Oh yeah, but what does the legislation say?’

Jake: With the legislation, you know, the gap that exists – that we’re talking about – is really the theme of the learning module. It’s really filling that accessibility gap

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