Interview with Suzanne Bair

Suzanne Bair, the founder of Accessible Family Travel, was interviewed by Maya Northen Augelli.

MNA: Why did you decide to start a blog focused on Accessible Family Travel?

SB: I love to travel. Growing up in a military family, I think it becomes part of your blood. Over the years, however, my family and I started having difficulty traveling. We have a variety of different health conditions ranging from mild to chronic, and disabling, which makes planning a trip, or even a simple gathering, difficult. While there has been a recent surge of information from wheelchair travelers about traveling with a disability, it's still a challenge to find information for other disabilities or chronic medical conditions that also affect travelers. I simply couldn't find information to help with planning travel for those with a mental health condition, diabetes, severe allergies, autism, Crohn's disease, fibromyalgia, arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, etc. and other chronic medical issues. So decided I wanted to create a platform for travelers with disabilities, both visible and invisible, who were searching for a broader range of accessible travel information. As a writer, this allowed me the perfect opportunity to combine two things I love   writing and travel. But beyond that, it also allows me to include disability advocacy work that I do as well. Through creating Accessible Family Travel, I get to work with a variety of people in the travel and tourism industry to help improve access for everyone, I am able to support disabled writers, and I am able to help fill a void in the media by creating a publication and resource that doesn't otherwise currently exist.

The disabled community is a powerful model for crowd-sourcing information. We often rely on each other to find relevant information for topics related to disability, including travel. With mainstream media and advertising often leaving us behind, it is travelers with disabilities who provide for each other the most helpful and accurate accessible travel information. Accessible Family Travel creates and curates comprehensive accessibility information and resources related to transportation, accommodations, activities, adaptive technology, and more. We also invite other accessible travel writers, bloggers, and individuals with disabilities or chronic medical conditions to share their personal experiences to help represent a larger range in accessibility needs.

MNA: : It sounds like Accessible Family Travel includes a wide range of illnesses and disabilities, and has the opportunity to shed light on some of the lesser known, or at least less commonly addressed, difficulties of traveling with disability and chronic medical conditions. What concerns have you found, either through your own experience or those of contributors/readers, come up most frequently, while still being overlooked or unknown by the general public?

SB: I think the largest issue I've noticed, and part of the reason I started Accessible Family Travel, is that society often overlooks invisible disabilities and chronic medical conditions and primarily only focus on visible disabilities. For example, the universal symbol for disability features a wheelchair and although this symbol used for accessible parking was recently changed to better represent an active user, it failed miserably to represent the vast majority of people with disabilities who do not use wheelchairs. This is important because when it comes to travel most businesses are focusing primarily on wheelchair access, but what about travelers with hearing impairments, low vision, autism, unaided mobility issues, severe allergies, etc.? Let's think about accessible restrooms, like parking, the signs show a wheelchair user, but many other people with disabilities also need to use accessible restrooms as well. I can't begin to tell you how many times I have been told I should not use those facilities or parking spot because they are for wheelchair users or even simply for someone with a disability. My disability is usually invisible so I am overlooked. I then have to justify using public accommodations by divulging personal health information that is no one's business and serves no greater purpose than to appease someone else's curiosity. This also happens when I need a seat reserved for people with disabilities when using public transportation. Just like using the restroom reserved for people with disabilities, when abled bodied people are using these spaces it becomes challenging to assert my right to this space.

The good thing is that people are slowly starting to become more aware of these discrepancies in visible and invisible disabilities and are trying to come up with creative ways to assist with these kinds of problems. For example, Heathrow Airport just came out with a new sash or lanyard for people with invisible disabilities to wear throughout the airport to alert airport staff that those who are wearing the lanyard may need extra assistance while they are in the airport. Some cities are also providing buttons or other badges to people with invisible disabilities who use public transportation to let other passengers know that they have an invisible disability and may need a seat. While these creative solutions may come up against resistance for many reasons, I still see it as an honest attempt at finding ways to address some of these issues until better solutions are found.

The hard part, however, is that there are also millions of people who have chronic health issues who do not meet the narrow definition for the label of disability, yet their condition(s) may still dramatically impact their lives and require accommodations. This is where the term ADA Compliance becomes so frustrating. ADA Compliance is only focused on the law, it completely fails to address the needs of people on a human level. In contrast, Accessibility can be applied much more broadly. When we begin to change the language we use, not as a matter of becoming more politically correct, but to change the way we interpret and interact with the world around us we begin to create more inclusive societies.

MNA: You mention creative solutions for those with invisible illnesses and disabilities (slowly) becoming more available. Do you find that, when these exist, they are publicly "promoted", for lack of a better word, so that those who may need these services can easily find them? Or do you often find that, while they exist, the burden of finding out about them is placed on the person with the disability?

SB: For the most part I think most information and programs for travelers with any kind of disability is pretty well hidden and under-advertised. For example, look up your favorite tourist attraction and see if you can quickly find accessibility information on their website without having to use the search box. Unfortunately, right now it is usually more incumbent on the person with the disability to find out necessary accessibility information than it is for the business to promote their information or make it easy to find. I know on a recent trip to Busch Gardens in order to get all of the accessibility information I needed I had to speak with four different people over the phone on four separate occasions and still received additional or different information on the day of my arrival. This was after I had already gone through their website accessibility information (found only by using the search box). However, there are always those businesses that are leading the way, like Heathrow airport, who are advertising their new invisible disabilities programs throughout the airport signage, on their website, and throughout their social media channels.

MNA: Do you find, either from personal experience or those of contributors to Accessible Family Travel, that there are certain countries (or even regions) that seem to be clearly leading the way in terms of accessibility – not just in terms of regulations, but in truly making things more accessible for travelers? Do you find there are any countries/regions particularly gearing their focus towards less visible/invisible disabilities?

SB: I have been incredibly impressed with a lot of the accessible travel and tourism options in the UK. In fact, many of our social media followers and resource contacts are from there. I think it has started small and just continued to expand which I am seeing here in the US as well. What has impressed me the most though is how many different mainstream disability lifestyle publications there are over there. Here in the US we have few disability lifestyle publications and they are relatively hard to find. Most of them are extremely small with a narrow focus: Challenge Magazine, Diabetic Living, and Arthritis Today to name a few. You can't find these in your local bookstore or magazine newsstand. However, my UK counterparts even have a BBC News Section that highlights disability. I'm sure you're wondering how this relates to travel but when we don't see disability represented in our mainstream media, we likewise don't see disability represented well in the rest of our lives either, including travel and tourism. When disability is out of sight, it is out of mind.

MNA: Switching gears slightly, let's discuss a bit more about your site, Accessible Family Travel. In your time running the site, and connecting with others through it, what has surprised you the most – either about the site itself, in the connections you've made, or in the field of accessible family travel?

SB: I still am struck every day how many people in the world think of accessibility only in regard to people who use wheelchairs. Accessibility needs are much more expansive than architectural barriers which represent the largest problem for wheelchair users. While architectural barriers are a huge consideration (not only to wheelchair users) there are so many more ways we need to be thinking about accessibility. In Germany, for example, I was looking at accessible hotels and the only feature that they listed was whether it was wheelchair accessible. Listing accessibility for wheelchairs is also often the case in US hotels as well but upon asking the hotel you can also receive accommodations for other disabilities such as vision, hearing, and short stature. In Germany, however, my experiences was that wheelchair access was the only disability several hotels were trying to accommodate. The second thing is the difference in businesses here in the US that focus on ADA compliance versus accessibility. I love working with businesses who talk to me about accessibility but often find myself disliking working with those that talk about ADA compliance only. You can tell immediately what the business culture is around disability just by the language they use. While I can't help but include information about wheelchair travel, my personal goal is to increase awareness about the needs of traveler with other kinds of disabilities and chronic medical conditions, usually invisible to others.

MNA: What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment in your work with Accessible Family Travel – either in the field, or for yourself personally?

SB: I've only started this year putting together Accessible Family Travel as a publication. We are small but we are growing literally on a daily basis. We have readers, bloggers, and partners now from around the world which excites me to no end. I have been offering more accessible travel workshops in my community, taught a University class this year to students studying tourism and recreation and have been invited back next year, and several new tourism companies both here in the US and abroad have asked me to consult on projects expanding their travel options for people with disabilities. For me, seeing full classes, new readership and members on our social media platform growing daily, and regularly creating new partnerships that help expand accessible travel means that I have found a space not only for myself but the disabled community as well. I love working with new partners who really want to create more inclusive opportunities. It is truly pure joy when I start talking with a business or organization and they ask for and hungrily embrace suggestions on ways to become more accessible.

MNA: For others looking to get involved in the Accessible Travel field, do you have any words of wisdom to impart?

SB: For business and organizations, the biggest thing that I can recommend and see as one of the most frequent problems is sharing accessibility information openly so it is easy to find and access. The second is understanding that accessibility is very complex because accessibility needs differ from person to person. Be patient, flexible, and ready to think outside the box. Think access, not compliance! For individuals with disabilities or chronic medical conditions, ask a lot of questions and don't be afraid to ask businesses or organizations to send you pictures if you still have any doubts about architectural features. You (or your caregiver) know what your needs are, don't be afraid to advocate for yourself and give specific details. While this can be frustrating and even intimidating at times, you will often need to paint a clear picture of what accommodations you need and why. However, with this in mind, you will be surprised at how many businesses would genuinely like to help improve accessibility, but maybe just don't know how.

MNA: Thank you so much for doing this interview, as well as for all you do on the accessibility realm. It truly is not only important, but necessary, work.


Maya Northen Augelli is the owner/operator of Chimera Travel, a personalized travel planning company. In addition to planning travel, Maya is a mental health advocate and blogger, and the founder of Spread Hope Project, an organization dedicated to providing more positive perceptions of people living with mental illness.