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Jake Steinman’s TravelAbility highlights the importance of Accessible Travel
Today, more than ever, the needs of people with disabilities are taking center stage in discussions at home, in communities and boardrooms. It is becoming more evident that someone with a disability should be able to enjoy the world in every capacity like the able-bodied. With this heightened awareness, possibilities for an enhanced quality of life for them moves closer to being an every-day reality.
With the disability population of the world at 15%, making travel accessible is a necessity. Enter Jake Steinman, the founder of TravelAbility, whose vision is fixed on making travel easier for people with disabilities. His website, newsletters and conferences are geared to stimulate thought and generate discussion about disability travel. At TravelAbility’s recently held hybrid conference, innovators, thought leaders and travel industry professionals were brought together to learn from people with disabilities about the many ways better travel experiences can be provided for them. It turned out that implementing some much-needed accessible amenities are much easier than we initially thought.
In an interview with Mélange, Steinman admits that his transition into catering to the disability demographic was entirely serendipitous. In 1994, he started a media and event company in the travel industry space called, North American Journeys. They had two newsletters, a tour operator website and events. Their business helped destinations, attractions and hotels attract international inbound tour wholesalers. He sold this business in 2019, but his office was based in Sausalito, California, a suburb of San Francisco. In 2017, the city of Sausalito presented Steinman’s company with an award, recognizing them as travel agent of the year.
Jake Steinman said: “It was a wonderful honor, except, I’m not a travel agent. Travel agents’ job description, and the services travel agents offer were never something I’ve been familiar with. We never planned travel for anybody but I thought it was a nice honour. During the course of the year following the receipt of that award, people started knocking on my door asking for help to plan travel. And then I started to notice that every other person seemed to have someone with a disability that they were needing help with for the trip-planning. I found out that they wanted to know what a destination had in store for someone with a disability. They said, we like to go to Hawaii, what can we do there? How accessible is Hawaii? I started to realize, the first thing they asked about was the destination. The second thing they asked about was places to stay that were accessible. And the third thing they asked about was things to do that were accessible experiences. And so, I started to look into it, and there was really a complete lack of information about travel for people with disabilities.”
Research then followed and from his discoveries he inevitably became an ally and advocate. TravelAbility was born.
“People have different ways of advocating,” said Steinman. “The first thing we did was create a newsletter (Travelability Insider) and people with disabilities were the ones editing that newsletter. Then in late 2019, we hosted a live conference in San Francisco. I saw people leaving that event wanting to do more after listening to the people with disabilities who were on panels talking about all the things that were challenges and barriers to them. And these were things that industry people previously thought were actually accessible. I also noticed that people were very fearful of getting involved – afraid they’re going to offend somebody, so they don’t know where to get started. The conference acted like a bridge two groups that would not normally have an opportunity to learn from one another. As members of the travel industry started to understand what they needed, they went back and actually implemented a lot of the features that they did not know or did not think about before.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has created some physical infrastructure to protect people with disabilities but there’s no ADA that provides for information infrastructure for the travel industry, “and that’s something I thought we could provide. So, we started a landing page initiative,” Steinman shared. “Since everybody’s asking about destinations, we started researching the destinations that already had accessible landing pages, that is, content about their accessibility options right on their website, easy to locate.” During COVID, his team researched these landing pages, aggregated them, and placed it on their website. “It’s like Wikipedia, a work in progress for accessible experiences. There is a disclaimer on the landing page that this isn’t perfect, it’s just what we have found so far.” TravelAbility is now working with one of the most creative digital marketing agencies in the travel industry as a partner, creating a set of guidelines regarding what should be on the landing pages. This playbook will show people how to create their own landing pages. “This is one thing I’m really proud of,” Steinman said, “because I think it can help a lot of people, and our landing pages are free.”
Jake Steinman envisions that Travelability’s future will be one where they would metastasize their information and approach, while continuing to attract people to help grow the movement. “What started off as a newsletter and a conference has become an ecosystem,” he said, “We are collaborating on ExplorAble, a Podcast series; Landing pages and developing a Playbook as well as resources that will make our website useful for anyone wanting to become more accessible. We will continue adding to the hub so a robust set of resources will be available to any company in the travel industry.”
The future holds a lot for the accessible travel industry, and indeed for TravelAbility, as they seek to expand their frontiers while working assiduously to create guidelines that will ultimately better the travel experience for people with varying kinds of disabilities.