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Tourism and visual impairments - the difficulties and constraints faced by individuals with visual impairments

Tourism and visual impairments - the difficulties and constraints faced by individuals with visual impairments
Author: Lydia Clarke
1 Commentries
Key words – Accessible tourism, hidden disability, Visual impairment, Equality

Abstract - The ‘mobility turn’ suggests that everything and everyone are on the move (Small, 2014), however there is evidence that people with a disability are travelling less than those without a disability, despite the progress made in the past 20 years to make travel more accessible (Small et al., 2012), therefore suggesting tourism is not yet accessible to all.

Social tourism refers to the inclusion of disadvantaged and excluded groups from tourism (McCabe and Qiao, 2020). Many researchers have pointed out how tourism should be available and accessible to all (Hang Kong and Leng Loi, 2017), since tourism and holidays provide individuals with a sense of wellbeing and can therefore play an important role in promoting a healthy society (Devile and Kastenholz, 2018). Hang Kong and Leng Loi (2017) point out how the need for relaxation is considered essential for providing a healthy and happy life and a holiday enables individuals with the opportunity for a break away from everyday life and routines.

Accessible tourism is evolving as an emerging field of academic research (Devile and Kastenholz, 2018), however there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding within tourism organisations. One area of disability which is severely misunderstood are hidden disabilities (Small et al., 2012). Visual impairment is perhaps one of the most challenging forms of disability to travel with (Responsible Travel, 2021) and there are very little tourism providers who fully understand and address the needs for this type of disability (Small et al., 2012). It is reported worldwide that at least 2.2 billion people have a visual impairment (World Health Organization, 2021), with at least 2 million people in the UK alone having a visual impairment (Responsible Travel, 2021) and it is estimated that this figure will grow since the aging population is expected to grow and age is a significant factor contributing to visual impairment (Small et al., 2012).

People with a visual impairment are assumed to not be interested in travelling since travel is considered to be full of visual encounters (Huang and Lau, 2020), when in fact travel is a multi-sensory experience made up of emotional bodily experiences involving sight, taste, touch, sound, smell and movement (Small et al., 2012). People with a visual impairment are likely to feel a severe lack of social support and a feeling of social exclusion and are therefore less likely to travel or engage in social activities (Bruce et al., 2007). Although Richards et al (2010) found how individuals with visual impairments are much more reliant on other senses such as touch and kinesthetic skills whilst on holiday and stated how they are much more dependent upon tactile and auditory information and imagination. However, one of the most important difficulties faced by individuals with visual impairments is a lack of confidence in travelling in unfamiliar locations (Richards et al., 2010).

There are many structural and physical constraints which present a barrier to individuals with visual impairments, including things such as a lack of reliable information, lack of support services, and tourism provider knowledge (Devile and Kastenholz, 2018). Wayfinding presents a severe difficulty for individuals (Small et al., 2012), since a person with a visual impairment requires a high level of alertness and concentrating when navigating (Richards et al., 2010), and therefore in unknown locations this can generate a sense of fear and anxiety since individuals are going out of their comfort zone (Small et al., 2012). Furthermore, a lack of understanding and awareness from society can often result in ignorance, inappropriate assistance and insensitive comments (Devile and Kastenholz, 2018), which can lead to feelings of sadness and depression (Richards et al., 2010).

Fortunately, there are tourism bodies which can provide information and support to individuals with visual impairments booking a holiday (RNIB, 2021). There are many cruise ships including Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines which have ensured staff awareness training aboard on all disabilities and hidden disabilities and provide facilities and assistance to individuals with specific disability needs (NLS, 2020). Furthermore, there is a tour operator called ‘Traveleyes’ who provide group holidays specifically for individuals with visual impairments (Traveleyes, 2021). The aim is to provide visually impaired travellers with a safe and guided trip, with a focus on stimulating all senses to guarantee a multisensory experience (Traveleyes, 2021).

Although there are significant improvements towards accessible tourism, individuals with a visual impairment are still facing constraints within everyday life and are still less likely to travel, despite the opportunities the tourism industry can take in providing an accessible tourism for all.


Devile, E. and Kastenholz, E. (2018) Accessible tourism experiences: the voice of people with visual disabilities. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 10 (3). Available from https://doi.org/10.1080/19407963.2018.1470183 [accessed 6 May 2021].

Richards, V., Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2010) (Re)Envisioning tourism and visual impairment. Annals of Tourism Research, 37 (4) 1097-1116. Available from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2010.04.011 [accessed 6 May 2021].

Small, J., Darcy, S. and Packer, T. (2012) The embodied tourist experiences of people with vision impairment: Management implications beyond the visual gaze. Tourism Management, 33 (4) 941-950. Available from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2011.09.015 [accessed 6 May 2021].

A commentary on tourism and visual impairments
Author: Alysha Hetherington
Further comments have been chosen to be made regarding this discussion paper due to past research I have conducted, surrounding a similar topic. The points this discussion paper highlights are key in improving tourism, making the industry more inclusive and well-rounded. With the media spotlight in the 21st century shining heavily on equality and inclusion be it gender, race; it is disappointing the see the lack of research surrounding the difficulties the visually impaired face during tourism experiences as well as other disabilities.

Although 15% of the population are harbouring a mental or physical disability, when viewed in the tourism market, they are considered as one of the most overlooked segments (Benjamin et al., 2021). Streamlining research to solely focus on the visual impaired percentage of the population allows for the importance of products and services catering to their needs to be addressed and created. As well as the physical difficulties the visually impaired population face, it is important to uncover the mental difficulties they face and how they can be overcome. By overcoming mental and physical difficulties, the visual impaired can gain an all-round improved, and increased inclusion level, tourism experience.

Minnaert (2011) states tourism is to include persons of all abilities, globally, and make the world a better place. Despite many structural and physical constraints the visually impaired face on tourism experiences, the segment of the market has the same desires as the able-bodied population for tourism experiences. However, having the same desires for tourism experiences as the able-bodied population, the visually impaired have to sacrifice those desires due to the lack of products and services which cater to their needs (Ambrose et al., 2012).

Finally, the inclusion of cross-examination with other disabilities to see if the difficulties faced by the visually impaired are similar to other persons harbouring disabilities could further support the findings in the paper and improve inclusion levels in tourism.

Ambrose, I., Darcy, S. and Buhalis, D. (2012) Best practice in accessible tourism: Inclusion, disability, ageing population and tourism. Tonawanda, New York. Channel View Publications.

Benjamin, S. (2021) Beyond accessibility: exploring the representation of people with disabilities in tourism promotional materials. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 29(2-3) 295-313. Available from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09669582.2020.1755295 [accessed April 30, 2021]

Minnaert, L. (2011) What is social tourism? Current issues in tourism, 14(5) 403-415. Available from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13683500.2011.568051 [accessed May 24, 2021]