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Speakers Say Improved Accessibility Would Provide Economic Benefit


July 29, 2005 – Improve accessibility for disabled visitors because it's the right thing to do, but also because it will provide a big economic benefit, said several speakers Friday as the Building a Destination for All 2005 symposium on St. John wrapped up with a panel discussion at Maho Bay Camps.
Eric Lipp, director of the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, said that a 2002 study showed that disabled travelers annually spend $13.6 billion traveling and $27 billion dining out.
He said there are 48.9 million Americans over the age of five with disabilities.
"That's 19.2 percent of the U.S. population," he said.
While participants said that the Virgin Islands still has a way to go when it comes to accessibility, Lipp said it is the number seven destination for disabled travelers. He said New York was first, with Washington, D.C., Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles following.
When it comes to Caribbean destinations, he said the territory was number one, with Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Jamaica, and Aruba taking positions two through five, respectively.
Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards also spoke about the economic benefit. She said that disabled travelers often traveled with family groups.
"The market is almost as good as destination weddings," she said.
She talked about the numerous obstacles she once encountered when she broke her ankle, including the need to have help getting into the portable bathrooms at a concert held at Paul E. Joseph Stadium on St. Croix.
"You want to be able to vacation with dignity," she said.
Kat Darula, partner Rosanne Ramos and their team from Multi, Design for People — along with four disabled people and their care givers — spent the week on St. John doing typical tourist things like going to the beach, snorkeling, dining out, and taking in the sights.
Transportation was the biggest obstacle.
"It was a lot of work for me," Tom Moxie, 44, of Peabody, Mass., said.
He said it was hard for him to lift himself in and out of his wheelchair. Additionally, the island's bumpy roads set off his muscle spasticity.
Ileana Rodriquez, 20, of Miami, said the island needs more ramps and improvements in the building code to make them more accessible.
"And the rocks in parking places are a problem. It makes it hard to get around with a wheelchair," she said.
Darula also noted that transportation posed challenges. She said she could not rent an accessible van to use during the symposium. She said that while St. John's Dial-A-Ride program uses one, it was not available for the entire week-long event.
And she said that taxis are not accessible for disabled people.
She said in many cases, it wouldn't take much effort to make areas accessible.
"It's the little details. Sometimes a product or a system can help," she said.
Darula said that even if hotels provide accessible rooms, travelers also want to reach sites, cultural activities and the beach.
She also said that disabled travelers want information about accessibility that's easily accessed on Web sites from hotels and other travel providers.
She said that she and Ramos will remain on St. John until early next week so they can meet with businesses and government officials to map out plans for making the island more accessible.
Joe Kessler, president of the Friends of V.I. National Park, said that as part of the park's 50th anniversary celebration in 2006, the Friends planned to wok on accessibility issues.
Maho Bay Camps owner Stanley Selengut, the prime sponsor of the event, said he has now joined the disabled ranks because he suffers from macular degeneration, an eye disorder.
"People with disabilities will do almost anything to lead a happy and productive life. And they'll pay a premium," he said.
He said he hoped that this symposium was the start of improvements to come on St. John and the rest of the Virgin Islands.
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