Prior to 1824, the visually impaired and blind had little in the way of resources that could aid them in day-to-day life, especially with reading and writing. Enter Louis Braille, who in that year invented a system of communication while studying at the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris. His finished work was first published in 1829.
Fast-forward to 2018, where Braille’s extraordinary feat is still celebrated by way of World Braille Day – which took place last month – to raise awareness of the challenges still faced by the visually impaired and to celebrate the development of braille technology.
But how can it be used to aid blind or visually impaired travellers and what can agents do to ensure they are servicing these customers in the best possible way?
Braille specialist Martin de Havilland- Fox has fused his background in travel with a career in optometry to create bespoke braille guides for the industry. Following a stint as cabin crew for AirUK in the 2000s, Havilland-Fox moved into selling optics before taking an examination with The Royal National Institute of Blind People to become a certified braillist.
Despite awareness of cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s or autism greatly improving, Havilland-Fox explains that more steps need to be taken to improve provision for visually impaired or blind travellers.
“We need to look at The Equality Act 2010, which states that every business must take reasonable steps towards improving their facilities for disabled people. The spotlight has been very much on providing access for wheelchairs, which any new buildings must have, lifts and ramps. There is certain attitude towards people with visual impairments; because they have a dog or a cane and can get around themselves, people assume they don’t need anything else.”
Visually impaired people aren’t always travelling with a dog or a companion that can read for them, Havilland-Fox explains, citing independence as a key concern for less able clients.
“Why should a visually impaired person have to rely on someone else reading a menu out loud; they want to read it for themselves.”
He shares advice on what agents should be aware of when booking holidays for visually impaired clients.
“The initial step is to make sure the airline is aware that they have a blind or visually impaired passenger travelling. They will be pre-boarded before everybody else and will be given a specific personal safety demonstration. Some airlines, but not all, will provide a flight safety card in braille. It gives that passenger a chance to settle in before the hordes board the aircraft,” he says.
When booking resorts or hotels, he stresses that agents need to be aware if the hotel staff are confident when interacting with visually impaired clients.
“Hotels need to be clutter free; the journey from the entrance to reception should have no obstacles in the way such as plants or sofas. The hotel should also provide facilities for an assistance dog – for example, water, a bed and food.”
Regarding the resources agents can refer to when searching for suitable properties and airlines, Havilland-Fox says it is best to pick up the phone and ask.
“There are websites too. The one I tend to use is Accessible Travel Online, which does list accessible hotels but they tend to be geared towards physical impairments as supposed to sight impairments.”
And in terms of obtaining braille brochures for use in-store, Havilland- Fox offers free consultation for the next steps.
“Some agents say that they will simply read the brochures out loud to their clients. Visually impaired clients don’t want it read to them. They want the independence to go home and read it themselves,” he says.
“I also offer a visually impaired service excellence rep course to give agents more confidence when selling to people with visual impairments. It’s amazing how many people shrink into a corner if they see somebody walk in with a cane or a dog.”
Bristol airport has recently partnered with Havilland-Fox to produce a Seeing Companion Guide – touted as a world first. It will take visually impaired passengers through the airport, using braille to help them understand signage, security requirements, distances to departure gates and even duty-free allowance.
Phil Holder, operations manager at Bristol airport, shares more detail on the guide. “Martin contacted me and we set up a meeting as I was interested and conscious that we didn’t have any facilities in place for the blind and visually impaired. Once we have the guides, we will leave them at our special assistance service provider’s desk and the idea is for passengers to take them at the start of their journey and return them on the way back.”
Airlines too have begun making provisions to elevate the experience of visually impaired travellers. For example, the likes of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have introduced audio descriptions for in-flight entertainment, meaning clients can enjoy the same selection of movies and television shows as other passengers.
And it’s not just in aviation that steps have been taken; the hotel sector is making strides towards improving the experience too.
Robin Sheppard, chairman and founder of Bespoke Hotels, reveals how his personal battle with a disability led to the company’s introduction of The Bespoke Access Awards, an international design competition that seeks to improve access and provide an enhanced experience for hotel guests with disabilities.
“I’ve been disabled through a paralysing illness, which took place in the mid-2000s and I had experienced what poor hotel design was like as a consumer in a wheelchair. When running my own hotels, I had the responsibility of putting the two together to see if it was possible to improve the needs of disabled guests for the better.”
Now in its second year, the competition has already inspired change within Sheppard’s hotel portfolio.
“We’ve just opened a hotel in Dorking called The White Horse, where we’ve spent a huge amount of money and time upgrading the hotel with facilities for visually impaired guests. We’ve crafted a number of menus and welcome messages in braille and we ran an awareness campaign for key members of our frontline staff too.”
Sheppard echoes Havilland-Fox’s sentiments regarding the need for agents to check whether hotel staff are competent when interacting with visually impaired guests.
“A lot of junior staff working at the reception in hotels might not have experienced close proximity to a disabled guest and be very unsure about how to make that guest feel comfortable, particularly if the facilities are not great.
“There are a number of brands and hotels which have incorporated braille directions, signs and translations. Whether that’s the covering on soap in the shower or a braille translation of the room number, directional signage or the menu, then that’s to be celebrated as a good thing.”
He adds that maintaining an open and friendly approach at the point of booking can go a long way to making clients feel comfortable.
Havilland-Fox concludes by citing the potential economic benefits of selling to the visually impaired market.
“The more awareness is raised, the better. There is a £250 billion purple pound market. People want to go away and they want to spend; however, they haven’t got the confidence and they haven’t got the facilities.”
If agents are prepared to put some time and effort into understanding the needs of visually impaired travellers, they will not only capture a lucrative market but can also pride themselves on providing a more rounded and accessible service for their customers.