ADA laws and tour operators

08/21/2013  |  By MIKE BOWERS
Experiential Learning

As an active member of the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA), I am very proud to announce that our organization successfully travels hundreds of students with disabilities each and every year as do many SYTA active members. This group includes students with mobility limitations, vision impairments, and life threatening allergies, just to mention a few conditions covered under these important laws. We do this not because we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. We believe students with disabilities deserve access to the same programs as any other student without a disability would have. We believe as most SYTA members do that student travel bridges cultural and political borders through education and exchange, making the world a better place for future generations. That belief is not intended for only those that can walk, talk, and hear as most of us can. Our mission is to provide the opportunity for everyone, no matter what their physical abilities are.

In the United States there are very comprehensive laws which set forth accommodation standards tour operators and others organizations in the travel industry are obligated to follow. These laws are part of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA), collectively “the ADA Act.” The ADA Act was created to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination and have an equal opportunity to utilize services and resources in our society. For tour operators that means to utilize the services provided to student travelers. The ADA Act is separated into five acts and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and activities of state and local government. Tour operators are required to comply with Title III of the ADA Act under the Public Accommodations section. The ADA Act also applies to any international tour operator that is traveling individuals with disabilities to the U.S. Once in the U.S. these foreign operators must meet the standards for accessibility for all services and activities performed in the U.S.

The following groups are considered “Protected Classes.”

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Age (40 and over)
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Individuals with Disabilities
  • Veteran Status

The ADA Act requires that organizations evaluate and attempt to make reasonable accommodation when travelers need them. These reasonable accommodations must be reviewed on an individual bases taking into account the facts relevant to that specific case. The act also requires that the organization makes the same attempt, even when the person needing the accommodation is traveling internationally. A tour operator’s ability to develop a reasonable accommodation in these cases may be impacted by the receiving countries willingness or ability to make such an accommodation. Most countries around the world do have some form of anti-discrimination laws of their own however; they are not required to meet the ADA laws. If you are interested in reviewing these by country, most can be found at the International Disability Alliance website.

Several years back I developed a strong relationship and partnership with the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC). This group of ADA specialists is based on the University of Washington campus in Mountlake Terrace. Their purpose is to help organizations such as ours, learn the most up-to-date information on ADA laws and help organizations achieve compliance with these laws. They are not intended to be the enforcement arm of the government but more the nurturing arm.

In 2008, and in each year since, representatives of that group have traveled to our program office in Spokane, Washington to provide our organization with the most up-to-date training on the subject. The cost to provide this training was paid for by DBTAC. With their support and mentoring, we believe we have designed one of the most comprehensive reasonable accommodation programs in the travel industry. I have also partnered with Dr. Barney Fleming who is a rehabilitation engineer for DBTAC and we have taken the ADA message on the road. Dr. Fleming and I have conducted multiple sessions on Title III of the ADA to members of SYTA at their annual conference in Nashville in 2012 as well as several on-line training webinars.

Based on our efforts to improve how we make reasonable accommodations, over the past four years we have seen our enrollments for those needing accommodations flourish. That means many more students now have access to a life changing experience, including those that may not have had the opportunity in the past.

The best news is that there are other ADA assistance centers located around the U.S. who are available to all travel related businesses to provide free consultation.

For more information about these support services you can go to the ADA National Network.

An important ingredient in developing a successful reasonable accommodation is early notification of the need by the traveler. It is critically important that travel organizations have a method or procedure in place whereby travelers can provide notification of a need for special assistance. If you are seeking travel organizations services, it is important that as a teacher you understand how they will be alerted to any medical condition that requires an accommodation prior to arriving on your tour. That is one of the reasons we require a health form from every traveler. On the health form we ask if there are any conditions we need to be aware of such as mobility limitations, hearing or vision impairment, allergies, diabetes, etc. We are not asking so we can disqualify these students from traveling; we are asking so that we can properly prepare for their arrival and ensure they have the same experience any other student would enjoy.

For example, in Europe, there was a portion of the day where students had to walk a long distance uphill to visit Montmartre in Paris France. There was a student with limited mobility, a wheelchair, and a medical aid with her. In advance, we made arrangements to have the two and one teacher who was traveling as a chaperone, take a tram to the top of the hill where they waited patiently for the tired hikers they had been traveling with to arrive and the student with the disability was able to enjoy the fantastic view of Paris

I thought it was important to share this information with you as every year we continue to have a few students arrive on our program in need of a reasonable accommodation but we had no advance knowledge of the condition. When we go back and look at the health form, the parent didn’t list any medical condition. These types of last minute accommodations are much more difficult to arrange if they can be arranged at all. Quite frankly, this situation also puts the student’s health and safety in jeopardy. As travel professionals, and as teachers using those services, we must all work together to ensure we have early notification and that we work together to effectively make reasonable accommodations.

Mike Bowers is senior director of Health and Safety, People to People Ambassador Programs. For more information visit
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