Accessing Downunder


At some point during my groggy gaze out the cabin window I recalled that I was in New Zealand this morning. Maybe it was the fact that Spring-green hillsides rose up on three sides of me in one of the North Island’s typical steep valleys. Or maybe it was the ocean cove defining the fourth side. But I think it was the clowning Kea birds that clinched it for me.

Coming from the falling autumn leaves of Northern California at first I thought I was seeing a particularly odd bundle of green-brown sycamore and toyon tree leaves rolling down the hillside outside the kitchen window. With a few squawks and a flutter the mirage resolved into two quite contented Keas waddling their separate ways -- only to do an about face and have at it again.

I recalled watching sea otters back home in California, platypus’ last week in Tasmania, and now these two rambunctious earth-colored parrots reminding me that there was a time for work and a time for play. Today was for play.

The past two weeks I had traveled across Australia from Sydney to Perth as a guest of Tourism Australia to study best practices in tourism for people with disabilities. Invited also by Tourism Tasmania to participate in their Visiting Journalist Programme, I explored firsthand the compact diversity of that charming piece of Australia sitting offshore “under Down Under.” In Tasmania I found a unique circuit of 100% accessible lodgings under construction – The Devil’s Playground – and was hosted there thanks to the generosity of owners Kerry and Jane Winberg. But back to that later.

Northern New Zealand was to be a two-night stopover on the way home. It was a “reconnaissance flight” with my sister, Pamela, to prepare for a longer stay in a year.

Flying into Auckland International Airport the traveler with a disability is met with more than the usual number of pleasant surprises – not the least of which can be friendly New Zealanders (“Kiwis”).

The airport is manageable in size. Luggage carts are free (a particularly civilized accommodation for international visitors who don’t happen to be carrying pocket change in the local currency.) Restaurants and shops are fairly accessible although not one of the Internet kiosks were usable due to a seat affixed to the floor in front of each and a keyboard mounted to the eye-level desktop. A roll-in shower is available in the international travelers section. And, in this traveler’s experience, the competence and quality of customer service available at the Auckland International Airport Visitor Centre rivals the best I have encountered anywhere. The agent who worked with us helped us narrow down options and did all the work to research and book accessible accommodations and activities.

We chose to stay in Tutukaka south of the more well-known Bay of Islands. We discovered that rental cars came only with right-hand mounted hand control and required a three to six day wait (I believe that under current deregulation I can now purchase a semi-automatic weapon in the USA with less hassle) and up to $245 NZ installation fee. My sister drove. I called cadence from the backseat driver position, “Left, left, left. They drive on the left down here!” (On my return home I have resolved to be less smug as navigator next time. I caught myself driving on the left side of the road in San Jose!)

Arriving after dark at the small resort we had selected, I was disappointed to note the four-inch threshold to the front door from the well-constructed, extra-wide ramp and landing. My disappointment grew as I met the charming owners, who brought us some of their own dinner when they realized we had not eaten, because I saw their obvious pride-in-ownership for their newly-constructed resort. It is a particularly painful experience for me to point out where, accessible construction codes faithfully followed, a small business owner is still left with an inaccessible product. So painful, in fact, that I have undertaken a project to publish and disseminate a resource that addresses the gaps in legislation and imagination which lead to this all-too-common experience. As consumers with disabilities we cannot afford to fail to assist those who have made the good faith commitment to serve us with appropriate products.

The next morning my sister and I drove the winding ridge top road to the marina and checked in with Dive! Tutukaka.

Although the staff and crew are not Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) certified it did not take long before they had won my confidence. Transfer into Dive! Tutukaka’s purple and gold boats was a standard fireman’s carry. The folded manual wheelchair was stowed forward. For those preferring to remain in their wheelchair on the exposed section of the deck during the wild 23 kilometer ride out to the dive destination – the Poor Knights Islands – I would recommend suiting up beforehand and donning the biggest poncho you can find. The wash breaking over the bow inundates the roof and deck as these speedy boats race to be first to the best spots!

And what spots they are!

The islands were reportedly named by Captain James Cook who thought the flower bedecked islands looked like the jam on his “Poor Knight’s Pudding” (which is better known today as “French Toast.”)

This cluster of sheer-walled islands preserves species that are extinct or endangered on the two main islands. Underwater the cliffs continue downward creating what Jacques Cousteau rated as one of the ten best diving locations in the world.
Aquatic life at the Poor Knights Islands' dive. Photograph by Dr Geoff Green of Auckland, NZ.

Since 1820 the islands have been left uninhabited as sacred (tapu) following an invasion and massacre of one Maori group (hapu) by a competitor. In 1977 the islands became a nature reserve and now enjoy the highest degree of protection available under New Zealand law. Local plants and animals flourish in this environment. Marine life has learned that divers pose no threat and have adjusted to their occasional visitors.

After watching the non-disabled divers surface at the first dive site – a sheltered cove with cliffs rising 240 meters straight up and continuing down below the surface of the clear water, I chose not to dive. While the water surrounding the Poor Knights is moderated by a warm current from the Coral Sea, I knew that my body did not have the hypothermia recovering resiliency that my dive buddies were exhibiting. Instead I checked out their photos of the fascinating world below and took in the unique plant and bird life around us. This is definitely a place to return to for a dive in a warmer season.
Exotic sea life seen on the Poor Knights Islands' dive. Photograph by Dr Geoff Green of Auckland, NZ.

My purpose in traveling Down Under was to examine the implementation of universal design by the tourism industry and speak on inclusive destination development strategies at a conference on travel and disability. The NICAN conference, “Out of the Blue, Valuing the Disability Market in Tourism,” brought experts from around the country to Perth for four days of discussion, networking, and innovation.

Highlights of the event included launch of the state of Western Australia’s “Guestability” resource on good design and quality customer service for travelers with disabilities. The Perth Convention Bureau introduced a promising model called, “Beyond Compliance,” where venues receiving referrals from the Bureau to host conferences are required to reinvest 5% to 10% of their profits into facilities accessibility.

The state Conservation and Land Management Department exhibited their best designs incorporating universal design into outdoor access. Speakers addressed many other topics. These included results of an international study on the development of travel confidence by individuals with disabilities, regional studies of accessible Australian venues, strategies involving a whole government approach to destination development and a universal management approach to customer service.

Everywhere the facts and figures were laid out to underscore the sustainability of addressing the travel needs of persons with disabilities. Even now, before the aging of the Boomer generation dramatically increases the figures, there are 40 million Europeans, 42 million Americans, and 9.5 million Australians with disabilities. According to a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by The Open Door Organization in 2000 the purchasing power of the American travelers-with-disabilities market is $13.5.

Wherever I traveled throughout Australia, I found evidence of a heightened awareness of the needs of travelers with disabilities. More so than in the US and Canada, the word is getting out to businesses Down Under that inclusive tourism is a profitable, growth-oriented market approach. Interest in Universal Design is high.

Following the conference I spent two nights in the southeast of the state of Western Australia. Access features were the first thing we heard about from our Aboriginal guide and musician, Josh “Kumal” Whiteland of the Wardani people, as we took a bush walk around the Wardan Aboriginal Cultural Center. Afterward he treated us to two jam sessions on the didgeridoo (“Didjie” in the typical Australian slang that shortens and adds “ie” to almost everything. “Wheelie” for “wheelchair user”, etc.)

Lodging nearby at Wyadup Brook Cabins was comfortable and accessible. Hospitality was splendid as Judy Fisher introduced us to the amenities of the cabin she herself had designed as a master project to incorporate best practices in accessibility. I even found references to universal design and the participation of disabled athletes in the upcoming Iron Man triathlon in the 32 page local newspaper that was left by the fireplace with the kindling.

Before the conference I was treated to an escorted, four-day whirlwind sampler of Tasmania by the staff at The Devil’s Playground.

In Hobart, down at the southern tip of the island, I stayed at the still-under construction Henry Jones Art Hotel. Except for a unique toilet that recalled some gymnastic equipment I have seen (it had no grab rails and the bowl stood at least two feet in front of the wall, for example) the room was comfortable. The mix of ultra-modern and loft-style exposed 100 year-old masonry and beams was quite appealing. Staff were eager to learn where they could improve the facility and their service to guests with disabilities.

Back up north in the Launceston region, we watched three captive platypus and strolled through an indoor butterfly garden – all wheelchair accessible – at Platypus House on a day trip through the Tamar Valley wine region. I heard Kookaburras. I listened to Tasmanian frogs with voices deep enough to compete with James Earl Jones for the voice of Darth Vader. I saw Black Swans, Native Hens, endangered fish species, and sprawling wetlands brought into reach through a network of boardwalks and bird blinds. Next trip I’ll build in time for the wine-tasting tour once I try all the wine I brought home with me and strategically pick my wineries.

On another excursion, we climbed the mountains beyond Sheffield’s mural-covered buildings in the Devil’s Playground’s lift-equipped van. Stopping at Dove Lake below Cradle Mountain there was both an asphalt path and a wooden boardwalk extending for several miles. Further east we spent the night in Tullah where an ambitious transformation is taking place. The Tullah Chalet is being retrofitted for accessibility. Accessible cabins and RV park are in the design phase. Local outfitters have adapted saddles for trips around Tullah Lake while a pontoon boat (Barbie – as in barbeque – Boat) is on order to further enhance fishing options. The resources available through the Devil’s Playground circuit of barrier free lodges around Tasmania is unique in y experience of inclusive travel options. In fact, I was so impressed that I will be leading an international gathering of outdoors-oriented people with disabilities who will converge on the site for Thanksgiving 2005. We’re calling it “Day in the Bush” after a similar program of more than ten years known as “Day on the Beach” in Santa Cruz, California.

Australia and New Zealand have a well-developed tourism industry. Both countries demonstrate in policy and in practice a positive orientation toward the needs and preferences of travelers with disabilities. General information is readily available on both destinations and accessibility information is available for those willing to research – or who have chosen a good travel agent. It appears that, for the near future at least, Australia in particular is casting itself in a light that is designed to attract and satisfy travelers with disabilities.

My advice? Take advantage of the hospitality, mate!



Tamar Valley

Dive! Tutukaka

The Devil’s Playground

Wayadup Brook Cabins

Wardan Cultural Centre

Cradle Mountain

Henry Jones Art Hotel


Auckland Airport

Global Access Disabled Travel Network

Originally published in Global Access Disabled Travel Network

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