This is how to make travel in New Zealand more accessible


Pieta Bouma works for accessible communications agency All is for All.


OPINION: After becoming disabled in 2019, it struck me how often people underestimated me after seeing my disability.

Amazed that I could drive, or do basic things like grocery shopping for myself, people seemed to be constantly underestimating exactly what I am capable of.

In the same way, I think the tourism industry may be underestimating disabled people as potential clientele for all sorts of tourism activities, with one in four New Zealanders experiencing some kind of disability. Thirty-five per cent of these are over 65; potentially retirees looking for somewhere accessible to relax or explore the country. Furthermore, many disabled people travel with companions, further increasing the money spent.

But more important than the profit margins this could bring, providing accessible travel opportunities fulfils the rights of disabled people to enjoy the benefits of tourism, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Accessible travel has benefits even for those non-disabled, such as mothers with pushchairs. So what could New Zealand do, to become an accessible utopia for tourists, and to open up the beautiful sights and thrilling activities to people of all abilities?

The first and most obvious step is to provide detailed and up-to-date information to empower disabled people to make decisions about what is within their capabilities and how best to prepare. When searching for accessible walks or hiking trails I could do in my manual wheelchair, I found almost nothing useful on which walks had steps, how many, or what the surface or gradient of the track was like.

If I had this information available, I could plan a hike, rope in the appropriate amount of people needed to help if there were a few doable barriers such as just a few steps, and know what equipment would be best suited to the terrain. Without it, I was forced to abandon all plans of a great escape into nature. With all the benefits of time connecting to nature, and the beautiful landscapes New Zealand has to offer, it seems a shame that a whole subpopulation of New Zealanders may be missing out on this due to lack of information.

Details also needs to be clear and readily available for accommodation and other tourist attractions. What is accessible to one, might not be for another, so there should be clear pictures and descriptions of what to expect, so disabled people can make a judgment on what is going to work for them.

It should be just as easy to book online accessible rooms, with pictures and a description, as it is to book any other room. The information provided must also be accessible to all, which means making websites friendly for those with low vision or those who use voice assistance.

A less often thought about barrier disabled people face doesn’t exist in the physical world, but in the general attitudes of the public. People with disabilities face stigma, misconceptions, intrusive questions and much more from (usually well-meaning) members of the public who do not know the appropriate way to interact with disabled people. It is important here to acknowledge that disability goes far beyond a person in a wheelchair, as epitomized by the symbol, but includes sensory, mental, behavioural, intellectual, and communicative impairments.

Although the array of disabilities is large, some basic rules go a long way, such as, always address the person with a disability, even if you are unsure if they can understand and communicate with you. It is always better to talk to the disabled person and have a support person step in to answer on their behalf than to make assumptions and talk over someone's head when they are perfectly capable of communicating themselves.

In my experience many people need reminding not to ask intrusive questions about the disability. “What are your mobility needs?” or “How can we help make this experience accessible to you?” go a lot further in making a disabled person feel catered to and respected than “What’s wrong with you?”.

It is as basic as airline staff knowing to ask me if I want help before touching my paralysed legs to help me transfer into a plane – yes, even paralysed people want bodily autonomy. If the staff of tourism companies had some basic training regarding catering to a range of needs, it would make travelling a lot more enjoyable and less stressful for disabled people.

Makingtrax is one trailblazing organisation currently doing amazing work in New Zealand opening up the tourism sector to the whole range of abilities. They educate adventure companies and other tourist operators on how to make their experiences inclusive, and also provide a ‘Trax seal’ to indicate to travellers that this company is equipped and educated to provide for every ability. This is groundbreaking work that is opening up all sorts of experiences to disabled people.

It’s no secret New Zealand has a lot to offer; breathtaking nature, adrenaline filled activities, places for families to connect and unwind. It should be equally obvious that people of all abilities want to enjoy all of these taonga.

The social model of disability teaches that although it is individuals who have impairments, it is the environment in which they exist that may or may not disable them. We have the power to create enabling environments so that the one in four Kiwis with a disability don’t miss out on all the tourism opportunities New Zealand has to offer.

Pieta Bouma is studying a conjoint degree in global studies and health sciences at the University of Auckland, while working for All is for All, an accessible communications agency. She has been a paraplegic since 2019.