Marlene Valle, a young deaf Mexican-American travel content creator, wrote off her dreams of traveling the world after losing her hearing as a child.
A Los Angeles native, she believed it would be financially demanding and otherwise an impossibility because she was deaf, Valle signed in a special video presentation at Skift Global Forum on Wednesday about what the travel industry needs to “build on the other side of this crisis.”
Valle said she initially internalized the fears others passed on to her.
“How could I travel if I’m not going to hear everything? How am I going to navigate the airport or communicate with local people in different languages,” Valle asked herself.
After doing some research on her own, Valle said she embarked on exploring travel adventures domestically, internationally.
She writes about her experiences and insights in traveling as a deaf person on her blog, Deafinitely Wanderlust, to de-stigmatize deaf travel for both the deaf and hearing communities.
What she found was, albeit challenging, deaf travel was indeed a possibility.
“I learned to trust myself and to leave behind the societal beliefs about deaf people traveling. I am deaf, and I can navigate the world,” Valle said.
But the industry, she said, is globally designed for hearing and able-bodied travelers, making it a challenge for the deaf traveler.
Marlene’s advice for those in the travel industry designing experiences for deaf travelers is to include them.
From hiring deaf people to offering sign-language interpreters and asking deaf travelers their preferred mode of communication — written, reading lips, gestures, or a combination, Valle said the industry could do more to adapt travel and become more inclusive.
She said that the little things like communicating could make travel accessible for people with disabilities.
Being able to face a deaf person and respecting their preferred mode of communication goes a long way in making the deaf traveler feel included. For example, the pandemic and the use of masks have created a barrier for the hard of hearing and deaf communities relying on the crucial survival skills of lip-reading and seeing facial expressions.
Valle said that a solution to the mask problem is working together to adapt to the situation by either using clear masks or alternative forms of communication.
So how can the industry be more accessible for deaf travelers?
Valle suggests reaching out to different deaf and hard of hearing travelers or local deaf organizations and working together on making it an accessible experience.
Additionally, developing long-term partnerships to accommodate the community’s diverse needs and keep up with the ever-evolving technology and industry.
“Start gaining knowledge and awareness about the deaf and hard of hearing communities and learn it from us — and challenge your perspective to stop painting all deaf communities with one brush stroke,” Valle said.
Accessible travel comes at a higher cost for the disabled, and that’s why it needs to come into the mainstream, said John Sage, the founder and CEO of Accessible Travel Solutions.
Sage believes there are many opportunities for travel businesses and destinations to be more inclusive of People with Disabilities.
In May, Sage authored the “Inclusive and Accessible Travel Guidelines” report for the World Travel & Tourism Council. The four key themes of the study are developing an inclusive and accessible system, creating safe spaces, designing an engaging and relevant system, and exemplifying inclusion and accessibility.
Sage said while many in the travel industry are aware of the need to be accessible, few follow through on all the steps needed to become accessible truly.
When discussing accessibility, he uses the Sage Seven keys to success in accessible travel as a framework to drive home the point for businesses. They include being accessible, showing accessible, talking accessible, leading accessible, marketing accessible, involving accessible, and standardizing accessible.
He has found businesses employing all seven steps benefit from an increased return on investment, enhanced reputation in the disabled community, and improved customer service, Sage said.
These are in line with Valle’s suggestions at the Skift Global Forum, including asking the community for feedback on accessibility and providing close captioning videos or transcripts for podcasts.
Based on the Sage Seven, Sage also created 27 key focus areas for businesses and 16 for destinations on developing inclusivity. A key question for destinations is how they can make it easier for disabled travelers to visit?
From training and marketing to having hotels and attractions audited for accessibility and clearly posting accessibility information and options for public transportation to having a support plan for disabled travelers if something goes wrong, destinations can work across the board to increase inclusivity.
For businesses, it includes aligning all departments to work towards a single accessibility vision, Sage said.
“By including us into the travel industry, you’ll learn to recognize all of our different needs and challenges,” said Valle. “Together, we can make tourism accessible — and genuinely, because accessibility isn’t charity, like Haben Girma the deafblind lawyer said.”
Accessible travel shouldn’t be something to be checked off a list. Instead, Valle said, it’s a human right.