A few years ago, when photographer and avid traveler Maayan Ziv arrived at the entryway of a boutique hotel in New York City, a flight of six stairs derailed her trip.
“I had called ahead and asked questions and was assured by everyone I spoke to that the place was accessible, that there was a ramp at the entrance,” said Toronto-based Ziv, who was born with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. When she arrived, there was no ramp in sight. “I found myself stranded in the street with my luggage in front of these stairs, with all my plans out the window because I had to find a last-minute place to stay in New York City.”
Ziv’s situation is hardly unique. About a billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, live with disabilities, and in countries where the life expectancy is over 70 years, people generally spend an average of eight years of their life living with a disability. Yet, much of the world is still built for a narrow traveler profile, according to Ziv.
“Historically speaking, and still very often today, accessibility is considered an afterthought,” she said. “People build things and create experiences, and then at the very end they might work backwards to try and find a way to maybe invest in a portable ramp. But it’s always seen as kind of a last step, if there’s time.”
Some common issues Ziv and other wheelchair users have encountered include hotel rooms marketed as “accessible,” but the doorway to the room or bathroom is too small for them to enter; travelers booking these rooms who also need caregivers can’t always count on getting two beds. Visually impaired travelers who rely on guide dogs often need to jump through hoops to procure permits for their service animals, while hearing-impaired travelers can miss key announcements in airports or train stations.
In 2015, Ziv channeled her frustrations into the creation of AccessNow, a one-stop digital tool where users can share and explore accessibility experiences at specific venues and businesses, from hotels and washrooms to restaurants and parks, rather than spend countless hours piecing together information from different blogs and online resources. Soon after its founding, AccessNow quickly became a community hub for passionate travelers with disabilities.
“It’s an amazing, empowering experience when you can connect with other people who understand the need for access, and to have a platform to vocalize your own experiences, because that’s just been lacking for so long,” she said.
“Historically speaking, and still very often today, accessibility is considered an afterthought.”
What started with one founder and a handful of users in Toronto has turned into a team of 15 full-time employees, 40 part-time employees, and tens of thousands of contributors, who share reviews and photos for sites across 35 countries on both the website and the mobile app. Users can rate places for their accessibility with a thumbs up and thumbs down system, and they can filter the app’s map tool based on their individual needs, whether looking for guide dog–friendly venues or automatic doors.
In addition to collecting user-generated intel, AccessNow allows businesses to share and verify their own accessibility information on the platform. The next step in the company’s evolution, according to Ziv, is to build on relationships with other organizations that prioritize accessibility.
In 2021 AccessNow partnered with Trans Canada Trail, Canada’s national trail, to identify and promote accessible segments within the network’s nearly 17,000 miles of paths across the country. With the help of Paralympic and para athletes and trail guides, they’ve identified more than 300 miles so far. Doubling down on nature-based experiences, Ziv’s company recently launched AccessOutdoors, which focuses on promoting other accessible outdoors experiences in partnership with trail groups in Canada and the United States.
Over the past year, AccessNow has also begun to broaden the scope of its information with the help of artificial intelligence. A team of in-house researchers are training the company’s AI technology to identify accessible experiences by tapping into data and images from various sources on the internet.
Since Ziv started her company seven years ago, she’s seen a growing number of destination-specific efforts toward awareness in accessibility, including steps toward wheelchair-friendly paths and even accessibility-friendly gondolas in Venice and ramps and guiding apps for the blind in the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City. She hopes to see this momentum eventually disrupt the travel industry like sustainability did in recent years.
She noted that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals include inclusivity in cities and human settlements, while Disney’s Disability Access Service program at theme parks is continuously refining accessibility procedures. A 2021 Google commercial showcasing how the search giant’s tech tools can aid disabled users—in this case, a captions option on a Google Meet call that helped deaf grandparents connect with their son and grandchild—also indicates to Ziv that awareness is growing.
“When you see the bigger companies and organizations make those statements, it really starts to create more awareness and representation of people with disabilities in everything we do,” she said.
Ziv also cites key policy changes, such as the 2018 legislation passed by Illinois U.S. Senator and disabled combat veteran Tammy Duckworth that requires U.S. airlines to begin reporting incidents of mishandled wheelchairs and scooters. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines reported 834 incidents of damaged wheelchairs in July 2021, or just under 30 per day on average.
Wheelchairs, explained Ziv in a 2021 conversation with travel booking site Handiscover, are an essential part of a disabled person’s general mobility, and a damaged one can cost thousands of dollars to repair and take months to fix.
Even with these glimmers of hope, Ziv says there’s a long way to go before the prevalent “disability as other” approach to building infrastructure and experiences becomes a thing of the past. She imagines a world where disabled travelers can make quick, informed decisions in their trip planning without having to face the anxiety she felt outside of that New York boutique hotel.
She points to the massive financial upside for travel businesses: According to insights and design firm Return on Disability, the disability market represents $13 trillion in annual disposable income that could be spent on experiences like travel.
“There’s an enormous market of people who have or are acquiring disabilities and still want to live an amazing quality of life and travel, but there are major issues still around end-to-end seamless experiences, and I think that that’s where some of the bigger changes need to happen,” she said. “The time to step up and offer that leadership is now.”