The following research paper applies disability rights and inclusive design for accessible tourism in Nepal. The research is particularly topical because a new act governing disability rights was passed in Nepal in late 2017. Field work and observation in Nepal included interviews of 10 service providers in the tourism industry, non-governmental organizations (NGO), and disabled people’s organizations (DPO).
The findings suggest that spaces were either inaccessible or inequitably available to not only people with disabilities, but also other minority groups such as women or individuals from a certain caste. Service providers were willing to become more inclusive, but felt that structural barriers and a general lack of awareness about disability rights hindered accessible services. This study suggests future areas of research, including better understanding the experiences in Nepal of tourists with disabilities, employment numbers of individuals from different minority groups, and reporting on the technical nuances of space.
Key words: Nepal; tourism; disability; accessibility; inclusive design
Accessible tourism has not been defined by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2016) because the concept is evolving. Among its different synonyms are inclusive tourism anduniversal tourism.Darcy & Dickson, (2009, p. 34) define accessible tourism as follows:
“Accessible tourism enables people with access requirements, including mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions of access to function independently and with equity and dignity through the delivery of universally designed tourism products, services and environments. This definition is inclusive of all people, including those travelling with children in Prams, people with disabilities and seniors”.
This article takes the position that accessible and inaccessible tourism should not be considered as binary alternatives, nor should they be measured solely by focusing on disabilities. Inclusive tourism can build off inclusive design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference (Inclusive Design Research Centre, 2017); aims to orchestrate inclusive experiences with many diverse perspectives (Pullin, Treviranus, Patel, & Higginbotham, 2017); and additionally is a holistic measure of several variables such as but not limited to: physical spaces, the environment, attitudinal spaces, technology, employment, social power, social and economic benefits, infrastructure and transportation, safety and government support that can create varying levels of or hinder access.
To consider inclusive tourism for people with disabilities in Nepal, understanding structural and systemic issues, power dynamics and how spaces are disabling may be more effective than focusing on a disability at the individual level. The barriers to accessible tourism presented in this study were: infrastructure and transportation, lack of employment for people with disabilities outside of DPOs, the attitudes and political incorrectness of society and a lack of government support.
Data was collected through a combination of 10 semi-structured interviews, an in-depth case study, field notes and an observational journal. The research included site visits to hotels with engineers and an architect. Participant voices were heard, and not deemed insignificant, but rather recognized for their complexity (Treviranus, 2014; Treviranus 2015). In disability research, solely relying on statistics is not reliable as there is no homogenous sample group that is large enough to reach statistical significance given the variability variety of people with disabilities (Treviranus, 2014). A small sample size allowed for thick descriptions (Van Manen, M., 1991) of stories that are reflective of the people in Nepal. Individual respondents are anonymized. Service providers resided in Kathmandu or Pokhara were identified through an internet search, snowball sampling, and time spent approaching businesses or organizations. Codes were created using NVivo as a tool for analysis and then, were placed into related clusters and made into themes that were refined.
The New Disabilities Act in Nepal
A new disability rights bill, The Act regarding rights of persons with disability 2074, was enacted in Nepal very recently: passed by the legislature on August 6, 2017 and enacted by the President on October 18th, 2017 (National Federation of Disabled-Nepal, 2017)Under the new Act, the definition of disability is:
“A) “Disabled persons with disability” means a person with disabilities who cannot afford life without having a property or a family member or guardian, or living independently.
B) “Persons with disability” means a person who is impartial to the physical and mental or long-term disability, due to physical restrictions or existing obstacles, to be intermediate and effectively interrupted in social life.”
The Act defined accessible as follows:
“Accessible” means for manually disadvantaged people to live independently and to enable them to be fully involved in every aspect of life and the use of man-made physical infrastructure, the means of transportation, information and communication equipment and the technology to be used without the service and convenience of the public service.”
In theory, this ought to be a groundbreaking time for disability rights in Nepal and could ultimately positively affect linkages in the tourism industry, but many respondents seemed skeptical about how effective the new Act will be. Ayush , who works at a DPO, observed: “Nepal is good about passing the law and signing the treaties, but very bad about implementing and enforcing and monitoring them so unless there is a monitoring mechanism, then it would not be as effective as it should be”
Dave, a Founder of an NGO, attributed barriers in government to “structural issues, that’s why Nepal’s poor, it’s not resources, its bad management sadly. “These barriers make Dave unable to hold his breath waiting for a “political revolution around stimulating the rights of the persons with disabilities”. He thinks that it will remain a very difficult country for people with disabilities.
Dipesh, an individual who has had to access the system and advocates at the DPO level, appreciated that the new act is mostly “based on the rights-based approach rather than the pity-based approach”, but remains a skeptic. Dipesh’s skepticism is rooted in the belief that the “government makes so many nice laws in so many issues, but, until and unless the people with disabilities and DPOs take a leading role, I think it is very hard to implement in reality. This is much stronger than the government itself”.
Cam, a Guide in adventure tourism, believes that the new Act will improve understanding of disability rights more, but its effectiveness will depend on how it is applied: “I mean, if they just apply it and don’t educate people, studies are in that doesn’t work, kind of like how prohibition doesn’t work, it’s not just implemented and then expect people to understand it, they will just go against it”.
Lack of Accessible Infrastructure
Respondents repeatedly identified lack of infrastructure as a problem. In turn, the Nepal Economic Forum (2017) has blamed unsatisfactory implementation of infrastructure projects on unstable governments and continuous political interference.
Sraddha, a Manager at a hotel who provides guests with 5-star travel servicesstated that “the main [limitation to accessibility] is the roads, it’s not properly managed” and that better infrastructure needs to be a priority.
Ayush experiences barriers to transportation daily. “I cannot use a bus even today, transportation is also very expensive because we have to get a taxi,” he stated. Even when a bus is “accessible”, it only means that:
“A bus driver gets off the bus to get along wooden plank…but then there’s a lot of traffic jams so pulling that out and pushing someone in a wheelchair will take a long time so what they do is normally they would just carry the wheelchair, the bus helper and driver will come down and some other passengers will come down and just pick up the wheelchair, so it is not accessible”.
Owning your own accessible vehicle or scootermay also be costly, and the accommodations required may not be available.
Ayush, is also well-traveled and says that his travel experiences have created a larger interest in accessible tourism spaces:
“It made me feel really independent… there are very few places here where I can go independently, but in [names place] I could do a lot of things, like watch movies by myself, cook, laundry and small things which were very accessible and I found that accessibility it will make people independent and will have a larger impact on their competence, so after that… I have done some sports called Ultra-light, in a small aircraft and it takes you right near the mountains also, it’s a bit expensive but I did that also.
And then I thought, you know, if I did that and felt good every person with disability would feel the same if the tourism sector was accessible. And not only Pokhara and Kathmandu, small places here like cafes and hotels because a lot of it in Nepal when you talk about accessible, not only 5 stars like big hotels have accessible facilities and not everybody can afford it… we have also recognized private life, right to recreation, becoming independent, also as main rights.”
The Ayush’s statement highlights the importance of both being able to enjoy the rapture in experience, but also the simple everydayness of activities.
Dipesh, has also traveled abroad, but has limited travel experiences in Nepal, as he found that travel in Nepal compromised his independence: “I have traveled abroad, many times rather than in Nepal because transportation is one of the biggest problems because I cannot travel a long distance with my bike and I must have to use the assistance when I go outside Kathmandu, because most of the places are not accessible”.
Dipesh spoke passionately about wanting to visit his own country and about his willingness to “accommodate as badly as [he] can in every place and [that he] loves the adventurous”. He laconically observed, “I have also experienced traveling using the public bus as well…which is totally inaccessible for me. I can crawl a little bit.” His passion for traveling overcame even these indignities. While some individuals are still willing to travel even in such circumstances, many individuals would not want to adapt to inaccessible environments.
Inclusive Tourism in Nepal
Nepal is on the inaccessible to accessible spectrum, which cannot be measured as a binary, as there are so many variables to consider, some harder to objectify such as attitudes.
Inclusive tourism in Nepal is a limited phenomenon at present, if measured against the accessibility standards used in the global north. An individual with a disability would have to be aware that travel experience in Nepal may be messy, and, at times, lack comfort and the quality of service that they may be used to. Burnett & Baker (2001) found that 66.3% of participants with mobility impairments would travel more if they felt more comfortable and welcome in lodging and 71.8% of people would travel more if they could find a room to accommodate their needs. Limbu narrows in on hotel infrastructure and notes: “They claim to have as a ramp, actually in most the places are built for the luggage, so that is 45 degrees or 60 degrees, sometimes which is not for independent movement of the traveler who is on an electric or manual wheelchair. So, there has been gaps… they don’t realize what kind of effect or impact it does to the traveler, and that is can ruin the whole experience of the trip because of the wrong kind of hotel or the physical facilities. They never expected, in other words, that makes a big dent to the destination”.
From making several visits to hotel sites, on several occasions, ramps were temporarily placed to accommodate an individual, but were not kept there which appeared to be for aesthetic reasons.
Limbu attempts to respond to service gaps by informing tourists so that the “delivery and expectation gap would be minimized”.
Inclusive tourism requires inclusive employment. None of the five tourism operators interviewed in this study have ever employed individuals with disabilities. Limbu stated he had an interest in employing people with disabilities, “Yes… that is very much on the cards. But what we don’t want let me tell you is not out of sympathy, because we know that will not sustain, even the person who comes in or works for us should have a sense of achievement, a sense of being, a sense of importance right.
So, the right job fit match is something we are striving for. We thought okay the mobility impaired staff, but I think we can start with vision or low vision and then hard of hearing and eventually as you’ve seen this building is an old one and the other one has elevator but this we don’t…So, once we address to that perhaps we can have but before waiting, turning it into wheelchair accessible office, we are in I think by next year we should have some staff who have some sort of disabilities.”
Limbu made some compelling points about shattering models about hiring people with disabilities out of sympathy or merely to meet a disabled quota in the workplace. He understands the importance of the right job fit for both parties, and is looking for a certain set of skills in the workplace. On the other hand, a disability should not be handpicked in advance, as sometimes visible disabilities seem to be of more interest than someone who may have an invisible disability. However, there is recognition that inaccessible office spaces would need retrofits to be accessible for wheelchair users such as in Limbu’s office.
One DPO had a staff member with a disability, but operated out of an inaccessible building, Benny stated,
“…Our office is actually not accessible. It’s a big problem, it’s not accessible…. Our colleague (name name) …so he has some difficulties to climb up, so something that we know and we are trying to find the right place but it’s also about finding”.
Rights of Women
Inclusive spaces also need to be tailored to other groups that may not face equality in society. Dhungana (2006, p. 134) stated that women in Nepal are treated as inferior, and “are never expected to receive equal opportunities that are available to men.” While women had a strong representation in the employment sphere in this study, there were far fewerwomen in management positions and in adventure and sporting based job positions such as guides.
Cam speculated why women are not hired at his company:
“From what I’ve gathered from information from other guides I’ve haven’t seen any female Nepali raft guides and I think that’s a cultural thing considering women’s rights is slowly coming along here…”.
Cam postulated that guiding was better suited to a male body: “With the international guides, there’s quite a strong amount of female international guides, but mostly male guides. It is quite a physically enduring sport so you do need the strength, it would be a bit tough. But the girls that get out there are quite fit”.
If a woman is also a persons with disability, the bias against her is exacerbated.Dhungana (2006) callsthis “double discrimination”. To extrapolate on this, worse yet is the situation of a woman with a disability from a certain caste who faces triple discrimination.
Nepal, at present, is partially inclusive only for the adventurous and those willing to have misadventures and a lack of comforts available in the global north.
However, accessible tourism should be defined uniquely in each country, as resources vary widely. It is not fair to assume that countries with little government support, environmental disasters and complicated terrain will be equal to others in terms of accessibility standards. Further, credit needs to be given where it is warranted. There is no point in asking communities to meet impossible standards with the resources available as that could potentially deter them from practices and feasible accessibility initiatives.
Countries with inaccessible environments, or societies with limited understanding of disability rights, that are working to be included, should not immediately be deemed as inaccessible, but rather, recognized on a scale of inclusivity. There are parallels between challenging the abled bodied/disabled body binary and the inaccessible/accessible tourism binary and both need to be unpacked. Countries, tourism, and tourists need to be recognized for their unique and diverse circumstances.
International disability rights and inclusive spaces will be achieved progressively and not necessarily immediately (Hill &Blanck, 2009). Tourism stakeholders should challenge the disabled/nondisabled binary in decision making. One recommendation is to provide a comprehensive tourism specific sensitivity training package, spearheaded by individuals with a range of disabilities. Another recommendation is to expand employment opportunities beyond the able-bodied individual, and make tourist activities more affordable for locals. In endeavoring to deconstruct and redefine tourism spaces, it is not sufficient to only consider the perspective and experience of the international client.
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Emily McIntyre works as a Research Coordinator at the Tamara Daly Research Program in Canada. Her scholarship highlights gender and health access; advances working, living and visiting conditions in long-term residential care; and promotes policies to improve access and health equity for older adults. She previously worked at the Graduate Assistant at Disability Rights Promotion International. She has obtained her Master’s Degree in Critical Disabilities Studies at the York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.