Is This Really Discrimination?


Chris Elliott recently penned an interesting column about discrimination in travel. First off, I have to disclose that Chris is a friend, and a colleague who I have the utmost respect for. He’s also been a great champion of the rights of disabled travelers, and has interviewed me many times on the subject over the years. In short, he’s helped get the word out there about the needs of travelers with disabilities.

That said, I’m kind of on the fence about a few issues brought to light in a recent column.

The column starts off with a complaint from a couple of “active grandparents”. Their age isn’t listed, but they sound like my contemporaries, so I’m going to assume they’re in the 50+ age demographic. Apparently they made reservations for an active Costa Rica adventure tour, but were subsequently informed by the tour operator that the tour had been “re-aligned” to a 18-39 year old demographic. The couple was given the option to continue with the trip, cancel or even rebook on another tour. The tour operator even offered to pick up any incidental costs the couple incurred because of changes.

And the couple was totally offended, and called the action discriminatory. I tend to disagree with the latter. The definition of discrimination is “making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit”. In the above case, no distinction was made. The tour company didn’t prohibit the couple from taking the tour; they just informed the couple that the other participants would probably be considerably younger.

To be honest if that would have happened to me, I’d be fine with it. If it was my heart’s desire I could continue with the tour; if not I could cancel with no penalties or even rebook on another tour. So where’s the discrimination in that? To be fair, Chris doesn’t claim it is discrimination, he merely reports that the couple does.

And as adamant as I am about equal rights, I feel this is just a case of market segmentation. Why not make a tour designed for 18-39 year olds, and market it as such? There are certainly many tours marketed to the 50+ crowd. Is that discrimination against younger people?

If I was a young person, and I booked a tour marketed like that, I’d expect to find people my same age on it. To be honest, I’d be disappointed to discover that I was traveling with people old enough to be my parents or grandparents. Sure, I encourage diversity, but let’s face it; there are certain things young people are just more comfortable saying or doing amongst their peers. And everyone should be able to pick tours, or even destinations within their comfort levels.

Conversely, I wouldn’t really want to go on a tour specifically designed for a younger demographic; because, quite frankly I wouldn’t fit in.

Sure, I have lots of younger friends; and although we share some commonalities because of similar interests, there are also some big differences due to the age gap. That’s normal. And I don’t see the harm in wanting to spend your footloose and fancy free holiday time with folks you feel comfortable being around. After all, it’s a time to kick up your heels and let your hair down.

In any case, Chris also mentions a man who was denied access or was charged a pet fee because of his service animal. Yes, that is discrimination. And he should take action about that.

To Chris’ credit he also acknowledges that fact.

So if you are in the latter category, and have experienced discrimination because of your disability, remember it’s your right to file a formal complaint. But where do you do this? Well it’s pretty complicated, and in fact I devoted a whole chapter in my Barrier-Free Travels book to it. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, but here’s the basic Readers Digest version:

  • If you have an airline related problem, you need to lodge your complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). You can also file a complaint with the airline. It should be noted that the DOT will dole out disciplinary action if appropriate to the airline, but it won’t compel them to pay specific damages to passengers. For that, you have to go directly to the airline, or take the issue to court.
  • It’s best to try and resolve matters on the spot, and to do that you need to contact the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). These airline employees are specifically trained in disability matters and are usually able to resolve access issues on the spot. It should be noted that they also have jurisdiction over third party contractors, such as contracted wheelchair pushers. All US airlines (and foreign airlines operating flights to or from the US) are required to have a CRO available while the airport is open.
  • If you experience discrimination at an attraction, restaurant or lodging establishment in the US, then you are covered by Title II or Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Department of Justice is responsible for investigating complaints about these venues.
  • Public Transportation is covered under Title II of the ADA, and the enforcing agency is the Federal Transportation Administration.
  • Privately owned vehicles, such as hotel shuttles and private bus companies, are covered under Tile III of the ADA, with the DOJ responsible for enforcement.

These are just the basics. Be aware that there are a lot of technicalities when dealing with airports, national parks, cruise ships and government entities. Additionally, there may be state or local access laws that cover specific situations.

Of course I always encourage folks to try to solve the problem on the spot, and perhaps even educate folks a bit along the way. But I do realize this takes a lot of patience; and to be honest, it?s not always possible.

My best advice? Look up the laws, know your rights, and learn how to advocate for yourself. In the long run, it will make the world that much more accessible.