Traveling with disabilities: Vacation without limits

You need to be mobile if you want to travel. A fact that also applies to persons with disabilities. Yet the choices for accessible travel are slim. Oftentimes things also don’t work out because of inadequate service and poorly trained staff. That’s why the Weitsprung travel agency in Marburg, Germany, made it their mission to make travel dreams come true for everyone.

01/04/2015

 
Photo: Wheelchair user at the beach; Copyright: Reisebüro Weitsprung

People with disabilities of course also dream of traveling to Greece or Mallorca. You only need to want it; © travel agency Weitsprung

Martin Smik and Birgit Glöckner manage one of the few travel agencies in Germany specialized in group and individual travel for people with disabilities. With Weitsprung, a nonprofit company, they created an option for people with and without disabilities and senior citizens. Their approach is simple, yet unique: nothing is impossible. Whether it’s Greece, Mallorca or Egypt – so far, service and competence have turned each vacation into an unforgettable experience.

Success through personal service

Grouping their customers into different degrees and types of disability doesn’t make much sense to Smik and Glöckner: "Once you start to categorize based on standard categories such as blindness, wheelchair user and deafness, you quickly end up asking yourself what actually constitutes a disability and when is it no longer a disability. We don’t want to deal with this kind of terminology." Instead, they simply want to offer people the support they really need. To do this, you need a lot of experience and knowledge.

Over the years, the two have compiled a large catalog of services. They obtain some of the information pertaining to accessibility in airports, hotels or destinations from third-party sources, the so-called tourism service supply chain. "But unfortunately, we have learned over time that we need to take this information with a grain of salt. We do a lot of research on our own. Though this is very tedious, we have high expectations, which leave us no other option than to test and try things out," explains Smik.

Travel means living the dream

Aside from detailed and intensive service, the Weitsprung options also include a 1:2 staff to customer ratio: a travel party includes a maximum of 10 people. That means there are always at least five chaperones on location. Glöckner adds: "When we have guests, who need a higher degree of assistance and need overnight support for example, we bring along more staff of course. That is to say, we sometimes have teams that consist of seven to eight associates."
Photo: Travel group in Africa; Copyright: Weitsprung Reisebüro

No continent is too far away for the travel agency Weitsprung. Here the tour group is in Africa, accompanied by Martin Smik (front right, kneeling); & copy; Reisebüro Weitsprung

However, this assistance is not supported by social legislation. Generally, the travelers need to pay for their own travels. Thus traveling is and remains a luxury for many. Yet there are exceptions where services can be billed, especially when it pertains to occupational accidents. Smik adds: "Services are then partly covered by the workers’ compensation insurance within the context of disadvantage compensation. We have also been approved for additional care benefits under the German Nursing Service Amendment Act (German: Pflegeleistungsergänzungsgesetz), since we are a nonprofit company. The guest can offset these respite care related services afterwards in agreement with the care insurance. We gladly help in this case and provide the corresponding documentation."

This is also, why Weitsprung relies on volunteer support. Glöckner adds that without volunteers, the services would actually not be possible: "We also have high expectations in this area. We train our volunteers and instruct them. There are many people, who either just retired, work in partial retirement or simply want to spend their free time in a meaningful way. Some, who come from the respective healthcare occupations or social work field even sacrifice their annual vacation to do this."
Photo: Martin Smik and Birgit Glöckner
Photo: Martin Smik
Photo: Jeep with a ramp in Africa
Photo: Travel guest in a wheelchair with Kenyans
Photo: Travel guest on a boat tour

"The travel industry is on the right path"

You shouldn’t forget that the travel industry is also a commercially oriented market. Efforts to continue to expand are there and running at full speed. Smik views the lack of services more in the lack of interdisciplinary collaboration. "There are many ideas in these areas already. These are often isolated solutions. That is to say, those are small initiatives. A woman in Bavaria offers water skiing classes for paraplegics. Wheelchair accessible hiking trails are built in the Bavarian Forest. These isolated solutions are brilliant, but they should become far more integrated into tourism marketing."

Another point is tourism training. Associates at the service desks of travel agencies are often completely overwhelmed when they consult people with disabilities. Glöckner points out that they need to ask their customers some intimate questions at times. "Do you have a urine bag? How often does it need to be changed? Do you have a prosthetic limb that might lead to issues at airport security checks? Do you carry drugs with you that are subject to the Narcotics Drug Act?" All of these are questions typically not asked at a travel bureau.

Personal and intensive service is particularly important for people with disabilities. Even a small detail can lead to big problems during the vacation. This is why Smik and Glöckner started collaborating with the Tour Guide Academy, which trains tour guides in Europe. Now a new modular system offers a module called "accessible tourism". "We have also begun to train and certify our own tour guides through the Tour Guide Academy. We also agreed to be instructors, because we are very interested in promoting tourism training."

Every travel destination is possible

There is no country Smik and Glöckner advise their customers against visiting. It is more a question of perspective and preparation. The expressed desire makes many things possible. As a traveler, I need to ask myself what I would like to see and experience, says Glöckner. That’s why Smik and Glöckner encourage their guests to get to know the country and its people. "And truly walk on paths perhaps nobody has walked on before. Paths you never imagined being able to navigate. When you are creative, when you train people, when you take away fears and guests trust you, everything is possible," Glöckner sums up.
Photo: Melanie Günther; Copyright: B. Fromman

© B. Fromman


Melanie Günther
(translated by Elena O'Meara)
REHACARE.com