An Economic Model of Disability

Occasional paper No. 4.

Changing the demand drivers for the provision of products and services in Inclusive Tourism. The Why and How.

All sorts of terms have been used to describe this growing market from Barrier Free Tourism in the United Kingdom, Accessible Tourism in Australia, Access Tourism in New Zealand. All of those terms have their foundations based on the physical term of “access” More often than not those expressions also have a narrow interpretation as people think of them applying only to travelers with a mobility related disability. The danger in using those terms is that the mind set is not lifted beyond physical access and does not find its way into an organisation’s culture.
More correctly what we are describing in talking about basic cultural change within the Tourism industry is an “Inclusive” environment where people of all abilities are felt welcome and wanted as customers and guests.

We are defining Inclusive Tourism as:

“Inclusive Tourism” – “the application of the seven principles of Universal Design to the products, services, and policies of the tourism industry at all stages of their lifecycle from conception to retirement and introduction of a replacement”

After 20 years of disability rights legislation there is a plethora of accessible infrastructure around the world but a sad lack of information available to the traveler with a disability. This paper explores why the legislative and compliance models have failed to create, in the eyes of the Tourism Industry, a viable Inclusive Tourism sector.


In a number of previous articles we have examined why the variety of equal opportunity and anti discrimination pieces of legislation around the world have not created an inclusive society. Most of that legislation has been in place for over 20 years and while there is no denying that it forced built infrastructure to become more accessible by setting standards for minimum compliance, it has generally failed to change overall community culture towards people with a disability. Industries, particularly the tourism sector, regards access as a compliance issue managed by sets of rules and procedures designed to reduce exposure and risk. We must remember, however, that those standards were based on the principles of Universal Design, which at their heart were conceived to be innovative and set the standards to develop infrastructure that would be usable by people of all abilities.

Today the number of people who potentially benefit from enhanced accessibility exceed 31% of the population, a significant purchasing group. Despite the size of the potential sector, business attitudes remain unchanged. The commercial sector has failed to see the market significance. It has further failed to comprehend how the disability sector will grow over the next 15 years with the aging population and the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Peter Brook once wrote “In Mexico, before the wheel was invented, gangs of slaves had to carry giant stones through the jungle and up the mountains, while their children pulled their toys on tiny rollers. The slaves made the toys, but for centuries failed to make the connection.”
The disability sector faces a major issue today. Generally the private service sectors, as the slaves in Mexico did centuries ago, have not made the connection between accessible infrastructure and the growing market demand. Access is enshrined as a compliance issue, not a market issue. People with a disability are regarded as problems and part of a risk management solution, not as a valued customer. Like the slaves’ children’s toys, the accessible infrastructure is in place but it is seen as a cost not a competitive advantage.

“In Mexico, before the wheel was invented, gangs of slaves had to carry giant stones through the jungle and up the mountains, while their children pulled their toys on tiny rollers. The slaves made the toys, but for centuries failed to make the connection.”

Peter Brook


The Medical to Social Model of Disability.
In order to understand the current context, the evolution of thinking towards disability needs to be understood. The first model of disability was the Medical Model. Here disability was defined as an individual problem and it was that individuals problem to adapt to their circumstance. It was very much based on medical care, individual treatment, professional help and individual adjustment and adaptation.
The social model took the model of disability from the concept of an individual problem to one of social context. Disability was defined as a function of the environmental and social constraints. A disability would not be a disability if the barriers of the society in which we live did not exist. The paradigm however relied on a social conscious to implement the necessary structural changes to remove the barriers. The shortcomings of the social model is that the change has been driven as a rights issue and one of compliance that has been seen as a cost that society demands of a business. The implications are that it is all about access and not the person. It is driven by social expectations and translated by rule makers. At that point it ceases to be inclusive and just becomes another problem for organisations to deal with and is handed across to their risk management departments. What started as a model to change the issue of disability away from the individual has only succeeded in transferring into a problem to be dealt with for a group of individuals.

Corporate Social Responsibility and the Triple Bottom Line
CSR is often sited as a major driver of social inclusion. CSR is perhaps more misunderstood than environmental sustainability was 10 years ago. CSR does generate significant amounts of funds for social activities but does not always result in fundamental cultural change. Philanthropy does not equate to CSR. True social inclusion only comes from acting in a totally inclusive way to an organization’s customers and employees. Giving or supporting a local community group or running a charitable foundation is not the same. It may look good on the annual report or make the directors feel good about their organization but if it is being discriminatory in the way it treats it’s customers or employees then the motives do not lead to a change in corporate behaviour.
The fundamental question is why. CSR perpetuates the social model and the basic rights issues surrounding it. When change is driven by rights, government legislation and compliance then the outcome will always be procedures to ensure those obligations are met. Seldom is the associated expenditure on infrastructure, manuals and training seen as an asset that will lead to an economic return or a competitive advantage. When it comes to accessible infrastructure we see time and time again great infrastructure with little or no marketing to inform people of it’s existence. The disabled community complain about the lack of infrastructure and industry bemoan the poor utilization and over regulation.

Disability vs Ability
People with a disability are present in all sectors in roughly the same proportion as the general population. They are not like the backpackers, adventure tourists, luxury travelers or the Gay and Lesbian sector. The common misconception is that the needs of all people with a disability are the same. In one sense that conception has been reinforced by the social model of disability which, in defining the social barriers, has concentrated on a narrow sub set of physical access requirements largely limited to car parks, toilets building access and hotel rooms. The broader aspects of outdoor and activity spaces were ignored by most codes as were the needs for interconnecting barrier free paths of travel. By concentrating on the narrow access requirements the social model of disability effectively created an artificial sector of people with a disability that ignored their actual aspirations. It didn’t change the culture away from looking at a person through their disability, it reinforced it.
A disability, in reality is just a different level of ability. We are not all equal in a number if ways. Physical ability is just one set in the total capability set of the human being. If we do take physical ability as the cornerstone of the push for greater accessibility then we need to put it into context. Looking at the travel industry as a case in point. Travellers vary enormously in their physical capabilities and their holiday patterns reflect that diversity. Whether that holiday is climbing a Himalayan peak, walking New Zealand’s, Milford Track, visiting the wine region of the Napa Valley or relaxing on a Caribbean Island that is a personal choice. The tourism industry is adept at discerning and catering for those wide ranges of choices, however, we have categorized a disability, through the medical and now social models as something different and around that built a set of preconceptions that shields it from a market view.
Disability is often regarded as a homogenous concept. The opposite is true. As with the general population ability is on a continuum.

How Significant is the Disability Sector.

In June of this year the World Health Organisation and the World Bank released the results of the first ever global study on disability. The report estimates that more than one billion people experience some form of disability. Most studies and reports on disability stop there, however, from an economic point of view the raw data on disability numbers is not the true figure. Research done in Australia by Simon Darcy puts the multiplier effect at three when those directly associated with a person with a disability is taken into account. Those directly affected are family, friends and work colleges. If a person with a disability cannot access a business’s services, like a restaurant, resort or transport then the entire group cannot access those services. In economic terms over 4 billion people worldwide are directly affected by disability which is over one third of the world’s population.

There was significant Australian research done as part of the CRC on sustainable tourism the significant findings were:

  • Some 88% of people with disability take a holiday each year that accounted for some 8.2 million overnight trips.
  • The average travel group size for people with a disability is 2.8 people for a domestic overnight trip and 3.4 for a day trip.
  • There is a myth that the inclusive tourism market does not spend because of economic circumstance. That is false as it is a significant proportion of each travel market segment.
  • They travel on a level comparable with the general population for domestic overnight and day trips.
  • The total tourism expenditure attributable to the group is $8bn per year or 11% of overall tourism expenditure.

There is one key point to the above statistic in that the $8 billion is expenditure by people with a disability only. If expenditure by people travelling in the group is factored in, it is $24 billion or 30% of the total tourism market.

Age disability graph

Of more significance is the ageing population and the effect of the retiring Baby Boomer generation.
US research by McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2015, the baby boomer generation will command almost 60 percent of net U.S. wealth and 40 percent of spending. In many categories, like travel, boomers will represent over 50 percent of consumption. The impact on the Inclusive Travel sector is significant as over 40% of them will be retiring with some form of disability, raising the total value of direct expenditure to the Inclusive Tourism sector to over 25% of the market by 2020.

“American adults with disabilities or reduced mobility currently spend an average of $13. 6 billion a year on travel. Creating accessible cruise ships, accessible ship terminals, accessible ground transportation, and accessible tourist destinations is not charity. It is just good business.”

Dr Scott Rains. a US expert on disability issues

The Economic Model of Disability.

Evolution from the medical to social model of disability saw a major shift in attitude from one that concentrated on teaching an individual how to cope with a disability in an otherwise hostile environment to changing social attitudes to manipulate the environment to be more accessible to a person with a disability. It was a rights issue and based on the premise that society had an obligation to assist those with a disability. The final evolution is to stop concentrating on the “disability” but rather the needs and abilities in a customer focused environment. An economic model of disability changes the basic driver from a rights and compliance issue to a market demand driver. The economic model will change that focus by changing how access is looked upon. Once any industry appreciates that the disabled and their friends are a large market they will start to research their interests.

The economic model is suggesting that the market already exists and is growing rapidly with the retiring baby boomers. The real issue is attracting them by providing the facilities and services that they need. This group will not identify with the disability sector but will simply want to keep doing those things that they have always done and even relive their youth in their retirement. Their abilities will not be what they were in their 20’s but they will still expect be able to fulfil their aspirations. This impetus of new demand for more accessible facilities and service will change the paradigm for the disability sector. The business case is about making the industry aware of the market size and redefining disability away from the concept that it is an homogenous group to regarding it as significant group of people with differing levels of ability desires and needs.

  • Medical
  • PERSONAL problem
    Medical care
    Individual treatment
    Professional help
    Personal adjustment
    Health care policy
    Individual adaptation
  • Social
  • SOCIAL issue
    Social integration
    Social action
    Individual and collective responsibility
    Environmental manipulation
    Human rights
    Social change
  • Economic
  • DEMAND issue
    Economic integration
    Product development
    Innovation in design and function
    Universal Design
    Competitive advantage
    Market forces

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