San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Universal Design’ Would Benefit Everyone

Ever since The Nica Times published an article about my efforts to promote inclusive tourism in Nicaragua (NT, May 9), people have started emailing me; even more so since I started writing this NicAbilty column in June.

They say that everyone knows a person with a disability within two degrees of separation. This is to say that even if you don’t know a disabled person yourself, somebody you know does.

It would appear that through The Nica Times, I am proving this theory to myself as I have received correspondence from people with disabilities, their families and friends.

One reader, “Donlon,” affectionately known as “Don Paco” by his friends in Santa Ana, Costa Rica, retired there some 19 years ago. Though he’s not disabled, the 90-year-old says his age is starting to affect his ability to get around and he now has to use a walking aid.

It is very important to remember that access and inclusion for people with disabilities doesn’t just change the lives of people that were born with, or became disabled due to an accident or operation. It affects us all as we grow older and our bodies begin to wind down.

The world is made up of a large population of elderly and aging, and yes, I’m talking about all you guys out there that are retiring in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Sooner than you would like to admit, you will also need very similar accessible facilities to the ones I need as a wheelchair user, and to those that Donlon needs with his walking aid.

Climbing flights of stairs will no longer be an option, or getting into a bathtub. If we think about our own future now, we will all be happier bunnies when disabling factors start to play into our lives.

After the deaf tour guide article in the last NicAbility column, I was contacted by another reader, “Sara” in Uvita, Costa Rica, who has a deaf brother and wanted to know if similar travel services exist in Costa Rica for deaf people. The simple answer is “No”.

Training deaf American Sign Language (ASL) guides is a relatively easy and cheap task in the grander scheme of things. And while there is obviously a need and – more importantly for the travel industry – a market for such services, they are just not being provided. This isn’t because business owners are mean or discriminating; they are just ignorant of our needs.

I’ve just been in India giving seminars across that country to people involved in the travel and hospitality industry. The main feedback that we received was that it’s not that they don’t want to provide services to people with disabilities, they just don’t know how, and they’re worried about getting it wrong.

Instead of asking us what we need, most tourism businesses continue business as usual and stay away from what they perceive to be a difficult, non-profit market. The basic fact is that U.S. citizens with disabilities spend $13.6 billion every year on travel.

Therefore, it’s hard to say that our market is a niche or non-profit. We’re not asking for charity, we’re asking for services to be provided so that we can travel and live our daily lives, services which we will and do pay for.

These are just two of several emails I have received from readers of The Nica Times. People want to travel in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but are finding it to be a challenge due to the lack of services. As the tourism industry continues to grow in Central America, we should also make sure that this growth is inclusive for everyone.

As the industry grows, we are changing our tack slightly. Once we were promoting the idea of creating a number of “adapted” rooms from accommodation providers and “accessible” services to meet our travel needs.

Now we are pushing a mutually advantageous concept that has a positive impact on a much larger portion of society.

Universal Design does not have any rules or strict guidelines to it – the idea is that you make a space or entity as useable as possible for as many people as possible, therefore increasing the market potential. For example, if a hotel doesn’t have front steps leading to the entrance, then everyone can enter easily – whether they be a wheelchair user, a pregnant woman who finds stairs tiring, a family with young children and a stroller, or an elderly person who uses a walking stick or other mobility aid.

The same goes for infrastructure and public transport. If all buses and coaches were more accessible for all, life would be much easier for everyone, including the driver and assistant. It’s not just about us, it’s about everyone, including the staff who work at these places who have to help us and risk injuring themselves.

If Universal Design is applied to new establishments and transport, the world becomes a friendlier place for all – for you, for me, for your family and friends, and for those second-degrees of separation whom someday you’ll meet.

For more information about Universal Design or Inclusive Travel services for people with disabilities and the mature traveler in Nicaragua and Costa Rica please contact me.

Craig Grimes lives in Matagalpa. He can be reached at:


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