by Aimee Allenback
Today, one in six children in the United States are diagnosed with a developmental or intellectual disability such as autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. For these millions of families, something as simple as a vacation is rare. Those who have an affected family member are faced with the challenges of feeling misunderstood and unwelcome on a daily basis, and in the hospitality industry where these experiences should be fun for everyone, some hotel properties may be lacking.
“Travel can be especially challenging for people affected by autism”, says Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association (NAA). “Just a little bit of kindness and understanding can make a world of difference to families like mine.”
Imagine providing special needs families with resources such as safety kits, which include items such as door alarms, stop sign visual prompts, and outlet covers, to add an extra measure of safety to their sleeping room. Temporary tattoo identifiers that caregivers can write phone numbers on can be made available, and extremely useful, should an individual become lost or need assistance. This can be achieved through staff training and implementation of simple tools and resources designed to make families feel more welcome.
There are also ways hotel owners can reduce anxiety families may feel when traveling. For example, Be Friendlier is a company that offers the first standardized Special Needs Friendly designation program. They produce a unique social story for each designated resort which is made available via the company website for families. These stories are known to prepare people for traveling to a new environment.
Acknowledging the special needs community is a social responsibility for individuals in all industries. There are government regulations in place via the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for those with accessible needs related to physical impairments, but there is little that is addressing the fast-growing developmental/intellectual disability community.
Tracy Carreola, mother to Chelsea, a non-verbal 23-year-old diagnosed with Angelman syndrome shares her thoughts, “Taking a person with special needs out of their routine can be very stressful”, says Carreola. “An educated and aware staff, along with simple resources, can make all the difference between a relaxing vacation or an absolute nightmare. Knowing where those destinations are located is extremely important to our planning process.”
The idea of a Special Needs Friendly designation for the hospitality industry is not simply a nice label to have; it’s a need to have.