Let’s Pack Up Our Dis/Abilities!
It was about time! On April 14 2016, The Netherlands finally adopted the UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, already established in New York on December 13, 2006. Social media campaigns such as “#jekomternietin” (#you are not getting in), as well as the establishment of the accessibility hallmark for buildings and institutions that were front runners in making their buildings accessible for people with disabilities, received quite some media attention. All of this is terrific news, but accessibility to buildings is, of course, not the only article in this convention. There are 50 articles in total, almost all with many sub articles. Article 30.5 states that: "Persons with disabilities should be enabled to participate on an equal basis with others in recreational, leisure and sporting activities”. And it is this article 30.5 that links with the work and research which I have been doing over the past ten years.
When I started working as a tour guide for people with disabilities six years ago, I noticed that a lot of people were surprised that these people (in this case people with varying mild intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders) would go on multi-day trips outside of The Netherlands. "Can you not just go to Giethoorn and tell them it's Venice?", someone once 'joked' to me. "Do they really benefit from going far away and out of their comfort zone?" others asked me in a more serious tone. And it is not only others that think about the purpose and experience of travelling for people with disabilities. My own thoughts and experiences also contributed to a growing curiosity about this matter. I realised that I sometimes wondered why, for example, people with visual impairments book a cross-country skiing holiday even though they struggle with keeping to the trails and cannot see the scenery (the way I do)? Much more so, however, I started wondering why people who are, at least for now, able-bodied (and I mean this in the broadest sense, both intellectually and physically) ask themselves these kind of questions. Why is it that we doubt the reasoning and purpose of tourism for people with disabilities?
In his book Dis/ability Studies, Dan Goodley (2014) introduces the term dis/ability. This is a split term that he believes acknowledges the ways in which disablism and ableism (and disability and ability) can only ever be understood in relation to one another (Goodley, 2014). The study of disablism started at the end of the last century when many disabled people became activists fighting for social recognition, cultural representation and political participation. The focus changed from disability as a psychological, embodied or medicalised problem to being a sociological, economic and cultural issue (also visible in the medical and social model of disability). Disablism often puts the focus on the negative treatment of people with disabilities and then tries to overcome this. Ableism, on the other hand, privileges able-bodiedness and leads to an “ability-based and ability-justified understanding of oneself, one’s body, one’s relationship with others within one’s species, other species and one’s environment” (Wolbring, 2012). By doing so, it excludes people who do not meet these standards. Goodley links this to the concept of the contemporaneous citizen. Based on Wolbring’s work and other literature that draws upon the idea of a ‘cherished individual citizen of our times’, Goodley provides an overview of the valued citizen of the 21st century. She stated that the “the valued citizen is cognitively, socially and emotionally able and competent [and] is produced through the practices of disabling or ableist societies” and “the valued citizen is hearing, mobile, seeing, walking [and] is produced through the practices of cultures that value mobility, hearing, speaking, sight, bodily control and comportment” (Goodley, 2014). Looking at these two explanations more carefully, it can be concluded that despite the growth in disability studies over the past 40 years, ableism still prevails in this definition of a valued citizen in the 21st century. In the first definition, people with intellectual disabilities are unable to meet the necessary criteria to becoming a ‘valued citizen’, and people with physical disabilities are unable to meet the requirements for the second definition. An extremely disturbing conclusion and one that, with the recent adoption of the UN convention, can no longer be accepted.
While the origin of tourism can be traced back to Egyptian pharaohs traveling for amusement and relaxation purposes, the term ‘tourist’ was first coined in the 18th century. It was used to describe the sons of the upper classes undertaking their Grand Tour as part of the process of induction into society by expanding their knowledge and experience during a trip around the continent (Cooper, 2012) and later also further around the world. Travel was truly a privilege for the upper classes. Although travel became available for more people after the Industrial Revolution, part of this legacy still lives on, often making it hard for certain groups in society to undertake the kind of holiday they wish to take. In their article on narratives of leisure, Fullagar & Owler (1998) state that in our Western culture the most valued ‘human’ characteristics are profoundly biased towards whiteness, maleness, wealth and a conception of rationality free of emotion. This definition can be linked to the ‘valued citizen’ and is seen as ‘normal’ within our culture and constructed against those identified as the ‘Other’ (Fullagar & Owler, 1998). Discourses of leisure and outdoor environments identify the ‘Other’ as women, lower socio-economic groups, older people, disabled people, and minority ethnic populations (Aitchison, 2003). Individuals with disabilities are being positioned as the ‘Other’ and are not getting the chance to participate in ‘regular’ leisure activities. They can be held back due to material barriers, for example accessibility to public transport, but often more so due to social barriers, for example the (negative) reactions people with disabilities receive in tourism settings. Tourism nowadays is often seen as something joyous and as an escape from the usual routine and surroundings (Van Egmond, 2008). A place or situation where we do not want to be confronted with everyday life situations. The possibility of becoming disabled or getting older and therefore losing some abilities might be one of these confrontations we do not want to face during this joyous escape of our daily lives that tourism is supposed to be.
So to conclude, historically, it can be argued that able-bodied people were seen as superior and therefore tourism was something disabled people did not need, or even worse, did not deserve. Nowadays, it can be argued that our reactions to people with disabilities going on holiday stem from the confrontation, during a time of pleasure, with something we have become more aware and afraid of, namely losing our able-bodiedness. This can still be linked to the idea of the superior life and being a ‘valued citizen’. I would argue, however, that it has also developed into being a personal matter and idea that by having/obtaining a disability someone cannot fulfil all he/she wants to achieve on a personal level. I sincerely hope that with the adoption of the UN convention and giving space to people with disabilities to share their holiday expectations and experiences, we can work towards better understanding of everyone’s lived experience, including making tourism more accessible and more acceptable for people with disabilities. It takes time to change certain views we have developed over time, but let us pack up our dis/abilities and embark on this journey together.
Pieternel Cremers is currently doing a PhD in Disability and Tourism and has almost 10 years work experience in guiding both children and adults with disabilities on summer camps and holidays.
Aitchison, C. (2003), Venturing into other territories: Reflections on theoretical journeys of social and cultural exclusion in outdoor environments. In: B. Humberstone, H. Brown & K. Richards, eds. Whose Journeys?. Barrow-in-Furness: The Institute for Outdoor Learning, pp. 19-31.
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Cooper, C. (2012), Essentials of Tourism, Prentice Hall - Pearson Education Limited, Essex
Fullagar, S. & Owler, K. (1998), Narratives of Leisure: recreating the self. Disability & Society, 13(3), pp. 441-450.
Goodley, D. (2014), DIS/ABILITY STUDIES – Theorizing disablism and ableism, Routledge, London and New York
Shakespeare, T. (1996). Rules of Engagement: Doing disability research. Disability & Society, 11(1), pp. 115-121.
Van Egmond, T. (2008) The tourism phenomenon – Past, Present, Future, Toerboek-Edu’Actief, Meppel
Wolbring, G. (2012) Expanding Ableism: Taking down the Ghettoization of Impact of Disability Studies Scholars. Societies, 2, pp. 75-83.