Seeking out accessibility

Zipping around on her blue scooter, Jeanne Allen doesn’t want to have to slow down unless it’s on her terms – and she shouldn’t have to.

But the reality is that even with strict accessibility codes as set by the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, many buildings throughout the United States just aren’t up to snuff.

Even when something is to code, Allen explained, it might still not be entirely “accessible” for someone who has limited mobility. Sitting in a roll-in shower, Allen showed an example of how the position of the bench in correlation to the detachable showerhead and the water controls can make what would be considered an accessible shower inaccessible for a person with physical constraints.

That’s why Allen started a project to highlight some of the best accessible features of popular tourist spots throughout the country – and hopefully, one day, the world. She’s calling her venture Incredible Accessible Travels. The point of creating these short videos and blogs of her travel experiences, Allen explained, is keeping a sense of independence.

Right now, the Sonoma resident is working with a videographer to highlight the Valley’s accessible features, collected through her own experience. Her goal is for worldwide contributions and feedback so that accessibility is within reach for all.

The idea for the project came after Allen went with her husband, Chip Allen, to Chicago five years ago. While her husband attended a conference, Allen, who suffers from the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, was left to navigate the city alone. “I did a lot of research and put together this huge itinerary of all of the places I knew I could go,” Allen recalled. “After, I decided that I had done all of this work to make this great itinerary and guide to the city, that I had to do something with it. I wanted to share it.”

“People tend to think ‘accessible’ things make things ugly, and travel agencies don’t think it’s sexy,” Allen said, adding that finding accessible features to hotels, restaurants and even tourist hotspots is no easy task, even with the Internet. Information, she noted, is often hidden or cited as “handicap accessible” with no further details of just how accessible it is. Even major travel websites, like Trip Advisor, Orbitz and, surprisingly, AARP, don’t have an accessibility search option or filter for choosing a hotel, Allen said. She often has to call and check before making a reservation and even double-check before she arrives to ensure she will be able to do simple things like take a shower.

In Sonoma, Allen has already discovered several accessible treasures she has found – MacArthur Place with its rooms, Traintown with an accessible train car and Hopmonk Tavern with its deck lift. The Sebastiani Winery, she said, is a good example of a winery that has an eye toward accommodation with no steps. “Sebastiani Winery is both accessible and pretty, and it doesn’t even have stairs,” Allen said.

However, as baby boomers age and enjoy the fruits of retirements, Allen feels that now is the time to embrace accessibility and realign travel marketing with the high amount of industry that is becoming increasingly reliant on baby boomer tourists. “With baby boomers being where they are, the benefit (of being accessible) goes up every year.”

According to a 2013 report from the Public Reference Bureau, baby boomers in the United States are more likely than the previous generation to have a disability as they near late-life. Baby boomers, research indicated, are living longer than people roughly 20 years older, but are not healthier. Two studies of middle-age Americans revealed that disability levels among the baby boomers are rising.

According to Allen, who has done a significant amount of research about the market power of disabled travelers, there are 1.3 billion disabled people traveling the world and, with their partners, they total 2.2 billion people and control $2.8 trillion of the world’s tourism market. “These are big numbers,” Allen said, “and the business industry needs to think about that.”

MacArthur Place, Allen said, is one of the top accessible places in Sonoma. In the accessible room at MacArthur place there is a redesigned walk-in closet with a higher section for an able-bodied traveler and a lower bar for someone like Allen who is in a scooter or wheelchair.

Kevin Virgo, director of operations at MacArthur Place, said what sets MacArthur Place apart from other businesses is the fact that Virgo and his colleagues really listen to customer feedback and are open to suggestions for improvement. A recent customer who stayed in one of the accessible rooms told Virgo how the carpet in the entryway of the bathroom got caught up in her wheelchair – and while nice for ambiance – was really more of a nuisance. The rug has since been removed from the room. Other modifications like this have been made over time, Virgo said. “We get feedback and modify from there.”

But one of the most exciting features for Allen is something quite small, and perhaps even unintentional – a bedside outlet that allows Allen to recharge her scooter at night and still be close enough to get into and out of bed without help. Allen points out that someone in a wheelchair can even light the room’s fireplace. Virgo said that something like lighting a fireplace could be missed in the hospitality industry because “a lot of times you think, ... ‘Oh, I could do that for you,’ but (a customer) shouldn’t have to ask that. They should be able to do it themselves and only ask for help because they want it, not because they need it.”

After Allen finishes her project in Sonoma, she plans to travel through Napa County and then the rest of the Bay Area before setting out to travel the rest of the country. Allen plans to create itineraries for each of her travels and will post videos of the highlights. She is most looking forward to taking one of the few, if not the only, accessible hot air balloon rides with a company based in Windsor. “I just don’t think it could get any better,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to go in a hot air balloon.”

Wendy Peterson, of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said Allen’s project is important for travelers and businesses alike. “I think what is so amazing is that she is trying to educate and also be such a leader for all people with mobility issues,” Peterson said, noting that the bureau receives inquiries about local accessibility. Once Allen is finished with her project, Peterson said, the visitors bureau website, sonomavalley.com, will feature her videos as a community resource.

For more information about Allen’s project, visit incredibleaccessible.com, email Jeanne@incredibleaccessible.com, or call 322-6236. Allen is looking for contributors to help with her website and its content.