Scott Rains was your typical All American boy with a love for camping, canoeing and the great outdoors and qualified as a ski instructor before his 18th birthday but within days he was in hospital.
A biopsy on his spine went wrong and Scott was paralysed. He continued his studies, including linguistics, and received a doctorate in theology.
More recently Scott was resident at the Centre (US spelling is “Center”) for Cultural Studies at the University of California where he applied Universal Design Principles to the travel and hospitality industry, promoting a concept known as Inclusive Travel. Universal Design works on the premise that a good design would be: equitable (equally fair to all), flexible, understandable, simple, safe, easy, and proportional. When you apply those concepts to travel and tourism it demands that getting to and from a destination and interaction with all of the facilities and attractions at that destination should be equally enjoyed by all, whether young or old, deaf, sight or mobility impaired.
As part of an international focus group Scott is working hard to bring Inclusive Travel to South America, India and South Africa, and to encourage tourism between them. In his recent trip to South Africa he met with Department Officials and NGOs, encouraging them to take advantage of the unique opportunity presented by the 2010 FIFA World Cup and to incorporate inclusive travel principles into the mix.
I was privileged to meet with Scott when he was in Johannesburg and even in the few hours I was able to spend with him I felt that I learned so much. I felt like a sponge – trying to absorb as much of his vast knowledge as I could. I asked him for his impressions of South Africa.
“For 30 days I was free to roam across South Africa and experience the country's hospitality for those who use a wheelchair. The trip was spectacular. The obstacles were mundane in their predictability - but that's something of a compliment. At least there were no uniquely South African barriers to learn to overcome!
What was unique is a country that is stretching to make new accommodations for travelers with disabilities in areas like sports while turning heads around the world with the legendary quality of its accessible safaris.
Jennae Bezuidenhout, owner of Access 2 Africa Safaris, invited me and arranged for my first and second government sponsors - Tourism Kwazulu Natal and Gauteng Tourism. The first tour took us through Durban's, mostly accessible, Gateway Mall; out to the captivating Makaranga Lodge in Kloof; over to a courage-testing embarkation from an inaccessible dock onto an Advantage Tours cruise in St. Lucia, and for a stay at the very comfortable accessible huts at Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe and Bonamanzi Game Reserves.
Lodging and dining in Johannesburg was, surprisingly, less comfortable in spite of being fashionably urban.
Restaurants and customer service seem to be polar opposite concepts infrequently to be found co-habiting the same location.
In fact, we even had one bored looking waiter hiding in the back corner of a restaurant ignore us when all three turned to try and locate him and one of the (potential) diners stood up and waved both arms over her head.
The Town Lodge in Sandton offered only the minimal required floor space to turn the wheelchair in the tiny room (although it had an ample bathroom with roll-in shower.) The restaurant was segregated so that I sat at a counter-top rather than a table each morning. Being the only diner stuck off in that particular corner had its advantages. I came to be the special favorite of many of the employees who eagerly provided great personal service.
Side trips to Gold Reef Theme Park included a prominent sign announcing that the central attraction - the gold mine - was off limits to a surprisingly wide swath of the park's visitors. A day trip to Soweto and another to Eldorado Park showed me the ultimate in hospitality. Architectural barriers were in evidence but social were not. A tour of the Don Mattera School for children with disabilities and meeting there with Gauteng Tourism was a celebration of solidarity and a promise of good things for the future. Similarly the apartheid museum allows for easy physical access and fairly good signage for those with low vision yet lacks Braille signage or apparent audio supplementation. The caves of Sterkfontein are irremediably inaccessible to all but the most agile yet the pathways to and above them are almost artistically well-designed.
A second safari, this one with Epic Enabled through Kruger Park, demonstrated well what one of South Africa's mature inclusive tour operators could do.
We visited an array of game reserves and animal rehabilitation centers on the drive from Johannesburg to the Kruger. At the park we sampled lodging at Tamboti, Skukuza, and Crocodile Bridge Camps. Using the heavy-duty wheelchair lift attached to Epic’s 19 ton/19 passenger safari vehicle we (fairly comfortably) made the otherwise impossible transfer into the park's night drive vehicle. After being surrounded by a jostling herd of 30 or more Cape Buffalo at a watering hole in this smaller truck I was more appreciative of Epic's lumbering vehicle and the fact that it sat us six feet off the ground and above the horns of most everything but giraffes.
In Cape Town I was treated by my colleague Pam Taylor, of Flamingo Tours, to a trip (over Cape Roller sea swells on an otherwise calm day) out to Seal Rocks and to a city tour by van. Pam's background as a nurse and years of experience as a tour operator put her in the same world-class status as Epic Enabled and Endeavour Safaris.
Looking ahead on the sports scene however I can only foresee a debacle.
If the responsible parties in government and the tourism industry do not immediately step up to accommodate the needs of travelers with disabilities there will be a severe word-of-mouth backlash against the otherwise positive image of South Africa throughout the worldwide disability community. Access, not only inside but to and from stadiums, needs to be resolved. Hotels are provided with excellent guidance on accessibility but not held to compliance. The gutless expectation that only hotels seeking a five star rating should be required to provide accessible rooms -- and then only two of them maximum -- makes hotel accessibility a joke on a global scale at which no one is going to laugh.
Whatever team wins the 2010 World Cup "Brand South Africa" is guaranteed to lose the games by continuing to follow the planning path it is stumbling down.
My criticism is harsh – especially coming from a foreigner who did not pay the price of the country's transition. It is my judgement that the legacy of apartheid is still alive - and directed, if only through greed, neglect, and indifference, at our people; my community. Motivation and excuses aside, it is still our people who suffer and it is enough.
South Africa is capable of much better for 2010. I have seen it firsthand. There is time if there is the will” – Scott Rains