Dr. Scott Rains Strives to Expand Accessible Travel for Wheelchair Users Worldwide

Dr. Scott Rains leads the charge to change the world, one accessible travel stop at a time.
Dr. Scott Rains leads the charge to change the world, one accessible travel stop at a time.

Editor’s Note: While many complained about the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities, 60-year-old Dr. Scott Rains saddled up his horse, put on the shiny silver armor of his wheelchair and charged into the battle to make the world easier to access for wheelchair users on the go. He realized early on though that change wouldn’t come quickly. But if no one started to fight for accessibility, change never would happen. 

Instead of trying to force change with legal action, Rains decided he could help countries around the world see the money they could make by making their countries more accessible to people in wheelchairs as a way to increase tourism. Dedicating his life to this effort, Rains has received multiple awards recognizing his work in opening up countries to be more inclusive from a business and vacation standpoint to people with disabilities.  Dr. Rains shares his thoughts below.

Dr. Scott Rains Explains the Need to Make the World More Accessible

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For the last 11 years, I’ve worked in the area of inclusive tourism and tried to develop ways to include people with a wide range of disabilities in the tourist industry’s marketing programs and making attractions around the world more accessible. I’ve worked with 27 different countries, talking about and explaining universal design.

“I’ve talked to policymakers in these governments to make sure that people with disabilities are treated as potential customers.”

Dr. Scott Rains Leads the Charge to Change the World - 5The idea of universal design includes not only people in wheelchairs but also individuals who are blind, deaf, aging and/or young or people who may need special attention due to cognitive issues. I begin the process by encouraging the imagination of the tourism product to include people with disabilities and also include the marketing and pricing of the product to attract people with disabilities.

For example, in 2009 when the Republic of South Africa landed the contract to host the 2010 World Cup Soccer Championships, I was invited in to test their safari adventure products as an independent consultant. I met with government officials in Cape Town to see how they could make their national parks and their safaris more accessible to people with disabilities. Visiting a national park in Africa to observe and photograph wildlife was a major industry in this country.

Due to South Africa’s contract for the World Cup Soccer Championships, the country realized that this event would bring in a tremendous number of tourists to see the soccer games, visit their national parks and use the safari industry. Because I was in a wheelchair, they wanted me to tell them how they could make these parks and safaris more accessible to the huge influx of tourists they were expecting. They matched me up with some independent contractors who ran safaris in their national parks. My job was to test their facilities and see how they could improve the safari experience for the people with disabilities coming to the World Cup Championships. That is just one example of the type work I’ve been doing over the years.

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Many countries rely heavily on tourist dollars. A survey done by the Open Doors Organization out of Chicago, Illinois (www.opendoorsnfp.org), showed that disabled Americans spend $13.6 billion on tourism – and that just represents one country in the world. People with disabilities in other countries also travel and want to see the world.

“The countries that make their facilities more accessible to everyone attract more tourism dollars from people with disabilities.”

I’ve spoken at several organizations on international tourism. One organization formed by the European Union is the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) (www.accessibletourism.org), which held a conference in Montreal, Canada, in October, 2014. This organization hopes to attract more tourism dollars into each of their respective countries by making tourist locations and tourist venues more accessible to people with disabilities. Although each country has its own ideas about how to accomplish this mission, the countries also have realized they can learn a multitude of things together that will benefit their tourism efforts.

I’m often asked, “How did you get into this type consulting and speaking business?” The simple answer is that I saw the need for making the world more accessible, and I saw there was no one else addressing this need on an international scale.

My Difficulties in Travel Have Made It More Interesting

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In 1972 at age 17, I was paralyzed by a tumor on my spine. Within 20 years, secondary tumors started growing from the radiation I received. This last set of tumors was diagnosed on New Year’s Eve in 2015. So, cancerous tumors have been a part of my life for 40+ years. About 10 years ago, I realized I was getting older and that the tourism industry wasn’t catching up with the growing need of people with disabilities to have access to tourism type products all over the world.

I had traveled often before I was paralyzed. I had been an exchange student and gone to Guatemala two years before I was paralyzed. I learned Spanish Dr. Scott Rains Leads the Charge to Change the World - 22and Portuguese, while I was an exchange student. Before that, I was a ranch hand in Seattle, Washington, where I grew up. In the early 1970s, I went to the University of Washington in Seattle. I cofounded and was the director of the Disabled Students’ Commission. While studying there, I obtained a fellowship to study in Brazil at the University of Sao Paulo, but when I arrived, the university refused to make the college accessible to me. I had to return to the United States to finish my degree.

I got my first two degrees in pastoral ministries and then a Ph.D. in pastoral ministries. I had no intentions of becoming a pastor. I just wanted to better understand my religious convictions. I got married. Even though I loved to travel, see different places and learn about different cultures, I had to discipline myself not to travel for a very long time – a real challenge to me. I truly liked to travel, learn about other cultures and learn other languages.

Some people have commented that I was brave to travel to foreign countries and into different cultures in a wheelchair. However for me, it was much more difficult for me to stay at home and not travel. For me, travel was and is interesting, and some of the difficulties I’ve faced have made travel more interesting for me.

The Difference in Inclusive Tourism Versus Accessible Tourism

Early in my career, I traveled and gave free advice to the hotels, motels and attractions that I visited. But the first paying job I had in this field was to speak at an international conference on universal design in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in November, 2004, which was where I first introduced the concept of inclusive tourism as opposed to accessible tourism.

Most people think they know what the word “accessible” means. They believe that accessible means providing a way for people who can’t walk to be able to go where they want to go. When you say the word, accessible, most people have a vision in their minds of a person in a wheelchair who needs to go up steps, roll through a doorway, be able to transfer from the wheelchair to the bed and be able to get into the bathroom with their wheelchair.

Inclusive tourism takes a much broader look at people with disabilities. It includes all disabilities – people who may have trouble reading or hearing, individuals who are deaf or blind, and older people who can’t run and do flips off a spring board.

“Inclusive tourism considers all people with all forms of disability and also includes what we’ve now defined as universal design.”

Dr. Scott Rains Leads the Charge to Change the World - 10Universal design considers all people with all types of disabilities when buildings, entertainment venues, tourist attractions and any type of structure are being built. The structure or the attraction is designed to take into consideration the factors that will benefit visitors with a wide variety of disabilities. When businesses are designing a policy or a product, they imagine the broadest range of people using that product under the broadest range of conditions. Then once the product is built, the product or structure doesn’t have to be modified to make accommodations for people with disabilities. Universal design is the answer to accessibility for all people with disabilities.

Actually, accessibility for people with disabilities isn’t the problem. Designing products and utilizing resources, so that those products, buildings and resources are accessible to a wide range of body types and disabilities is the problem. Today, universal design is being taught at several colleges and universities that have schools of architecture and is a huge step forward for all people of all ages with disabilities.

Ron Mace, for example, is a quadriplegic and a leader in this field. Since about 1970, he has published numerous articles on his concepts of universal design. His web information is shared via the Center for Universal Design www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud, and the director of this organization is Valerie Fletcher. Valerie is the person who set up the first conference I attended and spoke at in 2004 in Rio de Janeiro. She’s really helped me begin to work within the tourism industry on a new national scale, concerning the importance of universal design.

The Tourism Industry Genuinely Wants to Help People with Disabilities

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Originally when I traveled and ran into problems, people would say, “Oh, yeah I get it. We can give you a discount.” I’m thinking, “I don’t need a discount. I can pay full price. I have a Ph.D., I own my own house, I’ve been married for 30 years, I’ve never taken a handout, and I’m a working citizen. All I want from your facility is treatment equal to what the other guests have. I want to be able to get into the swimming pool and use all the facilities that your business has. Why should I give you my money and not have access to all the recreational activities that your other customers have?”

Dr. Scott Rains Leads the Charge to Change the World - 17Through my travels, I’ve learned that there are many people, especially outside the United States, who are working on solving the problem of inclusion and universal design. Obviously, more people live outside the United States than live inside the United States. But by proportion, far more people in leadership positions in other countries outside the United States are working harder to include the disabled community as customers in their tourism efforts, than there are inside the United States.

Countries outside of the United States have seen the advantages and the billions of dollars that can be made from United States’ tourists with disabilities. They’ve also recognized the advantage of attracting tourists from all over the world with disabilities. Canada is the probably top destination that Americans with disabilities visit, with the Caribbean in 5th place.

Two studies done in 2005 and 2007 associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act indicated that people in wheelchairs would travel even more (possibly twice as much) if there were more places they could go to and be comfortable.

Tourism is a huge world-wide business. If businesses related to tourism can make more money by making their businesses more inclusive to people with disabilities, then they’ll become interested in learning how to attract these types oftourists. When there is a dollar incentive to increase accessibility for more people with disabilities, one of the things I’ve learned is that we as a group definitely can get the attention of recreation and tourism businesses.

“Other countries outside the United States have passed us in making their tourism businesses more accessible.”

Dr. Rains addresses a group of travel experts and policymakers.
Dr. Rains addresses a group of travel experts and policymakers.

Part of the reason is that many people are of retirement age in various countries and want to visit other countries and see many different sights. Often, these people have a good amount of money from their retirement plans, their savings and assets they’ve accumulated over the years to spend. Yet many of these retirees have some form of disability. Older people with the money to travel will spend their tourism dollars in the countries and on the attractions that are the most accessible to them.

The dollar motivation definitely changes the level of accessibility in the tourism industry. Change is taking place. More countries are becoming accessible and are making more money by attracting the disabled community to their countries and the tourism venues available in their countries.

Third World countries may not have as much money to invest in accessible construction for their people as there has been in the United States. However, now that these countries see that making their tourism products more accessible will help them make more money, they’re looking hard at universal design. They’re also making buildings that consider all forms of disabilities when they’re being designed and built. Those same accessible properties are now serving more of the disabled community within that country. The local government doesn’t have to pay to make more businesses more accessible for the people within the country, because tourism monies motivate private businesses to become more accessible to attract the disabled community to spend their money with them.

Accessibility Is a Revenue Source – Not an Expense

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One of the problems we’ve had in the past is that many people will buy into the idea of more accessibility for more people. However, making venues more accessible to the disabled community has been seen as an expense, and not as a revenue source.

Also businesses in various countries always ask the questions, “How do we market to the disabled community, and how do we train our staff to work with the disabled community?” More and more we’re able to give practical answers to these type questions. The tourism community has recognized there are dollars to be made from the disabled community who travels. They’re also seeing that they can provide a better way of life for people with disabilities in their own countries by using universal design to attract the disabled community from around the world. None of these changes are taking place overnight, but more countries are beginning to realize the value of the economic advantage from tourism dollars they can gain by marketing to people with disabilities around the world.

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Two major professional organizations that help disabled people who want to travel are:

  • ENAT, the European Network for Accessible Tourism, a project done by the entire European Union. If you go to the website, www.accessibletourism.org, you’ll find information on travel in many European nations.

*SATH, which stands for Society of Accessible Travel and Hospitality (www.sath.org) in the U.S.

  • A private company that’s based in Australia is TRAVability (www.travability.travel). On this website, you’ll see these people really have made a case for companies, venues, etc. to consider the physically challenged as a market. They’re making a conscious effort to let the travel industry know what physically-challenged people need, and how big our market is. They even go one step further and tell the travel industry how to make money by providing accessibility.

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Download Discovering: Accessible US Travel Guide for Wheelchair Users

Discovering-Coverlowres240x240In this book, you’ll discover a state-by-state directory of accessible travel destinations across the United States.

These accessible travel suggestions are part of the Get Out & Enjoy Life [GOEL] program that is a joint educational initiative between Wheel:Life, a global community of wheelchair users, and SPORTS ‘N SPOKES magazine, published by the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

More than 70,000 wheelchair users from 108 countries took part in Wheel:Life resources in 2014.

You’ll find that each chapter of this book provides easily-accessible destinations that are fun and engaging for friends who use wheelchairs. Discovering is an easy, encouraging read that will help you explore all kinds of travel destinations and family fun spots, whether you are new to using a wheelchair or a seasoned pro.

Please note that not every state in the US is featured in this travel guide, just the ones that we have included in our GOEL program to date.


About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.


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