Resorts disabled when it comes to handicapped

Getting inside the hotel is just the first obstacle for disabled travellers like Regula Huwyler swissinfo.ch

The Swiss tourist industry has been harshly criticised for ignoring the needs of disabled travellers.

This content was published on December 13, 2001 - 14:27

The criticism comes from an unexpected source: the next generation of tourism managers.

The students of Zurich's International School of Tourism Management found during a study that Swiss hotels and resorts put additional obstacles in the way of disabled people, already confronted with many hurdles in everyday life.

"We want the people in the tourist industry, who have the power to make changes, to correct what is wrong, and we really want the changes to be made in the next few years," said Dominic Keller, one of the project leaders.

Focusing only on people confined to wheelchairs, the study concluded that the industry feels there is no reason to adapt to the needs of such a small minority of travellers.

Where are wheelchair ramps?

The students found that lifts, rooms and toilets are too small for wheelchairs in most hotels and restaurants. Wheelchair ramps are rare. Few trains or buses are wheelchair accessible. Leisure activities suitable for the disabled are next to non-existent, and even when they are available, tourist offices are often not aware of them.

"It's not that the people don't want to help us, but they don't think," said Regula Huwyler. "They don't know that we have special problems."

Huwyler has been a paraplegic for 25 years, after damaging her spinal cord performing a gymnastics routine. She is full of praise for the wheelchair-friendly renovations made to the Mövenpick Hotel in Regensdorf outside of Zurich, where the students presented their findings.

The lifts are now large enough, and the same goes for the bathrooms. A wheelchair ramp runs parallel to the stairs leading up to the restaurant.

Teach the employees

But she said, while these hurdles have been overcome, the Mövenpick personnel are typical of people employed in the Swiss tourist industry; they are unaware of the needs of the disabled.

To prove the point, Huwyler approached the reception counter and asked for a guest registration form. A receptionist placed the form on the counter, without realising that it might have been out of the reach of Huwyler, confined as she is to a wheelchair.

With form in hand, it became obvious that Huwyler wouldn't be able to fill it out unless provided with a hard surface to write on. She then proceeded to explain the point of the demonstration to the receptionist, who admitted never having received any instruction on how to deal with disabled guests.

The students have now presented their findings to high-ranking tourism officials in an effort to change the attitude of the industry towards the disabled. They emphasised that the disabled travellers segment had the potential to generate about SFr45 million in annual revenue.

They recommended Switzerland follow the lead of Nordic countries and North America, where, according to Huwyler, every hotel is wheelchair accessible and every grocery store and post office has a ramp.

Some progress

Not that Switzerland hasn't made progress. The Toggenburg region in eastern Switzerland was praised for publishing a comprehensive guide for disabled travellers. The same went for a pamphlet available in resorts in the Bernese Oberland. And a call centre set up by the Swiss Federal Railways means aid is at hand at short notice for the disabled travelling by train.

The students also put their words into action by producing their own concise brochures containing guidelines and suggestions to help people working in the tourist industry help those with disabilities.

"We wanted to do something that wasn't just for tourism but something for people who don't have the same chance to go on vacation as the majority of the population," Keller said about his team's reasoning for taking up the fight for people like Huwyler.

"People think I should just be happy in my wheelchair," Huwyler said. "They don't realise I have the right to go on holiday too."

by Dale Bechtel

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