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Chris Jones

Group Cites Access in Las Vegas

22 August 2005

Jerry Iwamoto, 55, of Maui, Hawaii, waits Friday for an elevator inside the California Hotel. Iwamoto says he has multiple sclerosis but visits Las Vegas every year.

Las Vegas is one of the nation's most-popular destinations among disabled adult travelers, according to a national survey released this month.

Approximately 40 percent of the estimated 21 million blind, deaf or otherwise physically impaired Americans who traveled in 2003 or 2004 said they visited here. Only New York, Washington and Chicago ranked higher.

Laughlin also made this year's list with a 14 percent score, said the survey, which was sponsored by Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based nonprofit that teaches businesses how to attract more disabled customers through improved accessibility, and the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington-based trade group.

Three years ago, Open Doors sponsored a similar study that showed U.S. adults with disabilities spend approximately $13.6 billion per year on airline tickets, hotel and motel stays, restaurant dining and entertainment while traveling. That figure could easily double, Director Eric Lipp said Friday, if more businesses addressed some simple obstacles that often keep the disabled away.

"The main issues were not physical barriers, which was one of the surprising things about the study," Lipp said.

For example, most disabled travelers polled said they'd fly more often if airline employees were more accommodating to their needs. Others asked hotels to reduce the distance between elevators and rooms set aside for disabled guests.

"I personally stayed in an accessible room at Mandalay Bay, but it was at the end of the hall," Lipp said. "Even for a wheelchair user, that's a long haul."

Most solutions, Lipp added, could arrive through simple measures such as better employee training, or deploying disabled mystery shoppers to better evaluate such guests' needs.

"I was surprised to see Las Vegas finish fourth," Lipp said, adding a few minor steps would easily make this city more-attractive to new disabled visitors as well as encourage repeat visits from past customers.

"Now that people are seeing there's money involved, (disabled traveler issues) are going to have (their) day," Lipp added.

Candy Harrington has been a travel writer for more than 30 years, the last 12 of which were dedicated to covering disabled traveler issues.

Accessibility in Las Vegas is already excellent, she said, because businesses here recognize that disabled travelers' money spends the same as everyone else's.

"Many hotels have gone above and beyond what they need to do, (and) I believe that access is market-driven in Las Vegas, rather than mandated by law," said Harrington, who edits the magazine Emerging Horizons from California's San Joaquin County. "The hospitality industry (in Las Vegas) goes above and beyond ... because they want everybody to be able to access their services."

For example, Harrington said Strip hotels including Luxor and MGM Grand offer wheelchair lifts or ramps at their pools, while Treasure Island is one of several hotels with ceiling track lifts to help disabled guests better maneuver within their rooms.

Many casinos have lowered gaming tables to improve wheelchair access, while properties such as Bellagio and Imperial Palace have far more rooms with roll-in showers than are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I continue to get good letters about Las Vegas" from readers, said Harrington, who is able-bodied. She also suggested local tourism leaders publish a brochure touting the city's amenities for disabled travelers. "If you have great access, you don't want to keep it a secret," she said.

Harrington, who authored the book "Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers," added she was not surprised that Open Doors' top destinations includes cities that are also popular with the general population.

"Just because you are disabled doesn't mean that you have to like a certain type of destination," Harrington said. "I get really irritated with people who think that all disabled people should go to Disneyland for their vacations. What if you hate theme parks?

"Some people like to gamble and some like to bungee jump -- doesn't matter if you walk or roll. I think there should be choices for everybody, and I'm glad that Las Vegas offers some travelers those choices."

The Open Doors/Travel Industry Association survey was conducted by Harris Interactive, one of the world's largest research firms, which in February used telephones and the Internet to poll nearly 1,400 U.S. adults with disabilities. Its findings include a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

This year's findings were compared with data Harris Interactive obtained in fall 2002 using identical research methods. That year, only 1,037 people took part in the study.

The survey defined a disabled person as someone who is blind, deaf or physically unable to walk, climb stairs, reach, lift or carry, among other limitations. Open Doors estimates 15 percent of the U.S. adult population, or more than 31 million people, have one or more such characteristics.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority monitors local travel trends through regular person-to-person interviews conducted within the local resort corridor. However, its surveys do not ask whether a local visitor is disabled, John Piet, the authority's senior research analyst, said Friday.