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TX: 12.03.10 - Travelling with Disability

PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

WHITE
Now holidaymakers, travellers and passengers with a disability can face an array of extra problems when they're booking their holidays. Is there wheelchair access? Are guide dogs allowed? What medical provision is there? How will staff react to a person with perhaps a serious learning disability? These are crucial questions if you're planning a restful time and you don't want to spend your hard earned break campaigning for essential assistance and services. And sometimes the problems start even before you set off. Take the case of Lee Kumutat, who reports occasionally for our sister programme In Touch, she recently had to abandon a holiday to Lanzarote.

KUMUTAT
We booked a holiday with Thomas Cook in late January, just decided we wanted to get some sun, and we disclosed fully that we are all blind and I'd be travelling with a guide dog, we were assured it would not be a problem, we were even asked if we needed a room on the ground floor, which we all tend to be asked because we have problems with steps. And that all seemed fine. What we needed to do was contact the airline to make sure that they could make provision for the dog. So I endeavoured to do that. Less than a week before we were leaving we were called by Thomas Cook to say that the hotel in Lanzarote wouldn't actually take our guide dog - my guide dog.

WHITE
Now when you spoke to Thomas Cook they asked all the questions, they understood fully that a guide dog was, as far as you were concerned, part of the deal?

KUMUTAT
That's right, that's exactly right.

WHITE
And at that stage did they say anything about any likely problems with the hotel?

KUMUTAT
No indication whatsoever that there would be any problems.

WHITE
Do you think the tour operator could have done more?

KUMUTAT
I certainly think the tour operator could have done more. I think that the alternatives we were given of another holiday, a full refund or a self catering holiday were difficult to accommodate, so - with such short time and you know all we've managed to get is a full refund and we still don't have our holiday.

WHITE
As far as you were concerned it wasn't an option to go without the dog?

KUMUTAT
No it wasn't an option to go without the dog at all. For a start all three of us being blind I wasn't going to go without my primary mobility aid, I'm not real good with a cane. There is absolutely no reason why we could all not have gone on our holiday and participated in the way that we - that we wanted to.

WHITE
What's your understanding of the situation as far as the law is concerned? Obviously one expects certain anti-discrimination laws to operate in this country.

KUMUTAT
In the Canary Islands from what I understand Spanish law is similar to British law where guide dogs are allowed in all public places, including hotels and restaurants.

WHITE
So why do you think this has happened?

KUMUTAT
I think it's several things. I think it's a lack of awareness on many, many people's accounts. I think it's probably a lack of awareness in Spain. And I also think if Thomas Cook has an inclusive policy and is hoping to provide access to their holidays to everybody then it's clearly a training issue within their customer service department.

WHITE
Well we did ask Thomas Cook about what happened in this case, this is what they told us:

THOMAS COOK STATEMENT
We'd like to sincerely apologise that the travellers were unable to take the holiday that they'd booked. Once our dedicated special assistance team became involved it was quickly established that the hotel in question does not accept guide dogs, which unfortunately our agent earlier had missed at the time that the booking was made. Whilst we were able to offer an alternative hotel they decided not to travel and we gave a full refund.

Well another case - John Hillier - has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, we spoke to him in August about his forthcoming holiday and the problems he had trying to get or take oxygen on a flight.

HILLIER
We're going on a cruise in October. It's with Thomson's - Thomson Cruise - but Thomson's Airline don't allow oxygen tanks on their aircraft at all. This time my wife is flying with Thomson's and I have booked myself a separate flight with EasyJet, so I can take my oxygen with me.

WHITE
Well we should say that Thomson announced on You and Yours, after we'd highlighted Mr Hillier's case, that they had changed their policy to allow people to take oxygen supplies on their flights. But passengers with many other airlines find that they're either not allowed to take oxygen at all or they're charged for the privilege.

Well Keith Richards is the disability affairs specialist at ABTA. Keith, first of all, what do you make of these cases?

RICHARDS
Well I think both the cases together highlight probably two of the major challenges that we still face for providing good access to disabled people to travel overseas - one being the provision of oxygen, which is a - often raises the spectre of health and safety issues because it's an explosive gas we have to remember, so carrying that on airlines - there's no consistent policy across airlines; and of course the provision of assistance and access in overseas accommodation where across Europe there is no consistent law, as we have in the UK with the DDA, which actually provides that kind of assistance that you can rely on wherever you're going within Europe.

WHITE
So I mean if I were to ask you the question: What rights do disabled travellers have? Is that a question to which you can give an answer really?

RICHARDS
No it's not and you know speaking as a lawyer you put 10 lawyers in a room and you get 10 different answers and I think that's the challenge. It is absolutely certain what services have to be provided and what should be accessible in the UK. The challenge with the UK outbound travel industry is that what it's selling and the enjoyment of the service is in another country and each country has its own framework and many countries, even across Europe, have no legislation anything like the DDA. So what that really does is it puts the burden back on to the UK tour operator not to sit back and say I don't know, I don't have the information and I'm not going to find out because that clearly would be discriminatory, what they have to do is take steps to find out. The difficulty then is that is the information they're getting from the hotelier in whatever destination reliable and can they pass that on to that customer so they get a seamless good experience?

WHITE
So I mean in the case of Lee Kumutat for example that's surprising in a sense because Spain has got quite a good reputation, the Canaries is legally part of Spain, so are you surprised that that problem with the hotel came up?

RICHARDS
I am very surprised, I can't claim to know what the law is in Spain or in the Canaries, the Canaries certainly has an extremely good reputation as an accessible destination, partly driven by the profile of the average person who goes there - with an ageing population people like to go there and it's a certain profile. But having said that it does surprise me that if there is law in place that covers that in Lanzarote that a hotel would turn round and scupper the whole thing - that's quite a surprise.

WHITE
Well there are agencies which specialise in helping with this kind of travel. Tony Reeve runs the Assistance Travel Service, which is a specialist service to allow people with disabilities to take account of things like medical needs when they go on holiday. What - I mean presumably - do you think people turn to you because they've had problems elsewhere?

REEVE
Well I think mainly yes. The whole idea of disability, special needs - I think you've got to be dedicated to it because every disability is different, every person's needs are different. And you've got to be catering for that from day one. So I mean basically when someone would come to us the first thing we would do is find out what their particular needs and requirements are.

WHITE
But should people have to go to special agencies - surely this should be part of a mainstream service shouldn't it?

REEVE
To a degree but I think mainstream services have to be working on a large packet situation, you know if you take the normal travel agent in the high agent they want to get so many people through the door in the shortest period of time. I'm not saying that's right but I think that is half of the problem.

WHITE
Is part of the problem with this though - aren't there extra costs if you carry out these kind of checks on people's behalf don't the extra things that people with disabilities may need cost more money?

REEVE
I would say that our holidays on an average are no more dearer than the normal package holiday for the type of hotels that have that facility. I mean obviously we will pick hotels - the major important thing to us is that we have a confirmed situation with an adapted room from day one. The majority of travel agents will say the room is on request, which obviously happens.

WHITE
Keith Richards, just finally. I mean what would be your key advice to people in Lee's situation and the other gentleman we heard on the programme, what would you say about fixing a holiday if you are - if you do have a disability?

RICHARDS
What I would say is that this has got to be a mainstream issue for the mainstream industry. There's an ageing population, more and more people have a disability and it's not just about people in wheelchairs, it's actually about a growing population. So the important thing is if you are - you may be disabled in a certain environment, the best person to know what their needs are is the individual, so make sure you tell your travel agent or tour operator, use the ABTA checklist, which is on abta.com, it's available for everyone, it has all of the kind of criteria that you might need to give information on. And get that confirmed and if you've got that in place it does minimise the risk of things not going right when you get to your destination.

WHITE
Keith Richards, Tony Reeve, thank you very much. And this is a situation that we're going to be looking at throughout the summer months.

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