Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 14, 2009

Kéroul: Travel, Accessibility, and Self-determination

On the road

In 1976, André Leclerc, a young Québécois man in his 20s, set off to hitchhike from Montréal to Québec City, and then on to Chicoutimi to the north. He “went his own way” for all the usual reasons that young people of his age and era did (before hitchhiking − in North America anyway − was deemed too dangerous). André wanted to visit his girlfriend and her family but he also just wanted to see some of his own country, get a little reality-based life experience, and have a good time. He did, however, have a much greater dream, that of hitchhiking from Montréal to Mexico and then back to Québec via Florida; nothing really unusual about that.

The only difference between André and other young people of his age was that he used (and still does) a wheelchair.

So there he was on the shoulder of Highway 20 heading east – with his thumb out. The 300-kilometre trip to Québec went smoothly because he was soon picked up by a travelling salesman, who happened to have a grandson with a disability and therefore in André’s words “didn’t find that I was all that different.” However, when the salesman let him on the outskirts of Québec City André had difficulty getting a lift downtown. After trying for some time, he thought that perhaps he was not in the most appropriate spot for hitchhiking and flagged down two patrolling police officers to ask them where a better spot might be. The police officers started questioning him, eventually took him to the police station where they questioned him further about whether he had run away from home or some institution. Finally, however, they told him he could go and even bought him a bus ticket to Chicoutimi. Although tempted to cash in the ticket and continue hitchhiking, André took the bus because it was now too late to hit the road again.

Today André Leclerc is the Founder and Executive Director of Kéroul, an organization that has become a leader in the world of accessible travel, and an advocate for people with “restricted or limited physical disabilities” who also like to travel.

According to Kéroul, travel is an opportunity to learn, to be open, and to “let our curiosity lead us.” The organization also believes that travel allows people to put aside their prejudices and communicate more freely; and experiencing prejudice is something that many people with disabilities have encountered.

Defining the terms and the issue

The mission of Kéroul has been “to make tourism and culture” accessible to persons with restricted or limited physical ability. And they define such individuals as those who temporarily or permanently have trouble with mobility because of their size, physical condition, or because of a “deficiency” resulting from illness or accident. The organization also includes in this list people with a visual or auditory impairment, people who tire easily (the overweight, pregnant women, some elderly people, and those living with arthritis or heart problems).

Having gone through the process of defining the issue, Kéroul set out to enter into dialogue with the community of disabled persons in Québec and the tourism and cultural industries; in essence a programme of public education that became exponential and also brought together many other groups, associations, and social activist organizations. Kéroul successfully blended a number of communities.

The name of the organization is significant in itself, basically a play on words, and a very upbeat name. Kéroul is a contraction of Kébec (Québec) and the French verb rouler which literally means to roll but also has the connotation of moving ahead. In my view, the best translation would be something like, “Let the good times roll!”

Kéroul has managed to influence and change government policies in terms of the tourism industry; has established a “best practices in accessible tourism” policy and procedures; has proved the economic benefit to travel and cultural industries of people with restricted or limited physical ability (15 per cent of the population); has organized major studies and symposia; has influenced building codes in terms of increased accessibility; has developed a team of trainers who in turn trained 10,000 employees of Air Canada; and has assured that many international events held in Québec had increased accessibility. André Leclerc himself has been given many awards for his achievements from national and international groups. He was, for example, among those named by the French magazine Express as Les 100 personnes qui font bouger le Québec (The 100 Top People Moving Québec Forward).

Kéroul’s tourism initiatives

Kéroul has entered into partnership arrangements with many other organizations with a vested interest in the travel and cultural industries; everything from the Airports of Montréal, to taxi companies, to the umbrella organization of the tourism industry in Québec, to specific tourism regions. This is an organization that really knows how to network, to collaborate, and to articulate convincing reasons why all human beings have the right to self-determination through travel.

The Accessible Road is one of Kéroul’s publications (available in French and English). A guide to seven popular tourism regions in Québec and to the attractions and hospitality establishments that are either “adapted,” “partially adapted,” “accessible to persons with a visual impairment,” or “accessible to persons with a hearing impairment,” it therefore serves the needs of its community. In itself, this booklet is a statement of belief and intention, a marketing tool (for those establishments that are adapted in some way), and a travel itinerary planner. The Canadian Museum of Civilization probably gets the best rating in Kéroul’s terms in that it is particularly special needs-friendly because it has: (a) descriptive panels in large print; (b) FM band assistive listening systems (FM 72); (c) narrated guide tours; (d) staff familiar with Québec Sign Language (LSQ); (e) tactile exploration available upon request during the guide tour; (e) TTY available (text telephone); and (f) four wheelchairs available on request.

Le Baladeur is Kéroul’s quarterly magazine which in addition to being another resource for persons with restricted or limited physical ability, is also an advertising opportunity for those offering services to the organization’s target market. It is also a publishing outlet for travel writers who want to publish stories about accessible-friendly destinations. Numerous hotel and other hospitality-related establishments advertise regularly in Le Baladeur. (In French, balader means to go for a stroll but it also suggests people moving at a leisurely pace and in directions that they determine.)

Kéroul has even moved onto the global stage, creating a new division to develop an international outlet. In this role it offers training and resource-based advice to other jurisdictions outside Canada. And it has the accreditation to go along with its reputation; in particular because it was the expert advisor for a recent APEC report. It has also served as a consultant for countries such as Peru and Costa Rica; and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Morroco and Tunisia. Furthermore it sponsored a pan-Canadian study titled “A Growth Market: Behaviours of Tourists with Restricted Physical Abilities in Canada” by a top Canadian polling firm. The study, which has many implications for any destination, reveals and quantifies the large potential market that this 15 per cent of the population represents for the tourism and cultural industries. Another study titled “Best Practices in Tourism Accessibility for Travelers with Restricted Physical Ability,” which looked at 19 case studies in 11 different economies, identified innovative ways of making travel more accessible for special needs clients. Prime among the recommendations of course is more enlightened public policy.

Kéroul kudos

Part of what I found so interesting about Kéroul, however, is its ability to lead. In this regard it has established an awards system called Mention Kéroul that recognizes and celebrates the work of travel and cultural industry managers, attractions, destinations, and others who have made a difference in their field in serving persons with restricted or limited physical ability. A five-member jury of people known for their social activist work in terms of inclusion and openness, make the choices and the awards are presented annually at the prestigious Grand prix du tourisme québécois. For example Le Jardin botanique de Montréal’s Cour des sens (Sensory Court) was one of the recent recipients. Having visited it recently I can quite understand why this world-class horticultural site was honoured for its inclusiveness.

In addition, Kéroul also presents the Michel Carpentier Award, named after the first recipient, a civil servant who built a network of governmental contacts that Kéroul, as a lobby group, could turn to for support. As a result of his efforts, 13 Québec government ministries made accessible tourism and culture part of their mandate.

Service Complice

As someone who has been involved in professional development training, I took special note of this programme and learned from it. The title suggests collaborative service, working with the client to provide for his or her needs, no matter who they are. These workshops have eight modules through which participants learn experientially and work through the issues and realities related to the world of persons with restricted or limited physical ability. Well-designed and organized, the materials and the workshops they produce are reality-based. In fact, what participants learn through the workshops is how their perceptions and attitudes (especially in terms of what is deemed “normal”) have a direct and unintended impact on other people. Among other things, the first module deals with terminology such as “disability” and “handicap,” focussing on the person as opposed to the disability, and real-life situations that the participants have had. There is also a strong focus on the growing awareness in society of obstacles faced by persons with restricted or limited physical ability. Subsequent modules deal specifically with issues and situations related to people with special mobility needs; visually impaired people; individuals with auditory impairment; people for whom language and voice can be a barrier; elderly people; and clientele with other special needs. The last module especially sensitizes workshop participants to people who have an intellectual handicap; those who have a psychiatric disorder; people of small stature; obese people; and people who have had major physical disfigurement. All the modules present issues that are not always easy to “process” or to find solutions for, but in its very positive and proactive way, Kéroul helps people make society much more inclusive.

According to the latest statistics I could find, there is a definite niche market in terms of travellers with restricted or limited physical ability (more than 50 million in Europe and more than 600 million around the world). And in a joint 2006 media release from the International Business leaders Forum and the UNTWO, I found this statement:

“In a business context advancing human rights is both about managing risk and realizing new opportunities…. By respecting, protecting and promoting human rights, companies can help contribute both to a stable operating environment and the well-being of those within their spheres of influence and responsibility. The case for corporate engagement is increasingly clear.” Assuring that human rights − in all spheres − are promoted and protected is of course an ongoing process and not a single event; however I think we can look to organizations such as Kéroul to lead the way.

For more information, visit the Kéroul website.

Candy Harrington is a colleague of mine in the United States who, as a travel journalist, devotes a fair amount of her work to these issues. Her recent book 101 Accessible Vacations: Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers is an excellent resource for travel journalists, travel and tourism industry members, and of course travellers.

To visit her website, click here.

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