By: Stefanie Benjamin, PhD for Tourism RESET
Late December, I was making my annual drive to Miami, Florida to visit my family over winter break. It was on this arduous, boring, flat drive through Florida that I decided to try to wake myself up and re-listen to The Evolution of Accessible Travel podcast produced by SKIFT. During this podcast, I realized that this could be an incredible collaboration and partnership with my HRT 410-Strategic Management of Hospitality & Tourism students at the University of Tennessee … the wheels were turning my friends!
As an Assistant Professor in Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, this class serves as our senior capstone course unpacking marketing and managerial strategies of hospitality and tourism. With this specific course, I tend to focus on a student-driven project with some social equity or sustainability component drilled in. However, as any good professor sometimes does … may have waited a wee bit to organize and plan the official ‘final project.’ But, as Spiderman said …. with great procrastination comes great responsibility. He said that right?
With Spiderman in mind, once back in Miami, I contacted brettapproved, a company founded by Brett Heising that helps people with disabilities (PWDs) travel more confidently through user generated data - think of Yelp but rating the accessibility and inclusivity of hospitality and tourism spaces for PWDs. Brett started the company in 2012 simply for wanting to shower on a business trip but not having access to a roll-in shower - even though it was promised by the hotel staff. His company disseminates information for PWDs to ‘travel more confidentially.’
Fast forward to two months later on a rainy, cold, dreary February Sunday in eastern Tennessee. I got into my car excited, yet somewhat nervous, to meet Brett Heising at the Knoxville airport. As I was preparing my students for Brett’s visit, I realized that I was also anxious to meet Brett, as this was my first time interacting and escorting a person in a wheelchair for a sustained period of time. I was scared that I was going to screw up, say something offensive, or run into challenges with Knoxville’s hilly terrain or moderately accessible university campus … I didn’t know what to expect.
As I got closer to the terminal I texted, ‘out in front’ - as our Knoxville airport is quite small, I thought that this was no big deal. Not realizing my ignorance, Brett responded that he was picking up his luggage and kindly asked if I could come in and assist. This was my first aha moment … as Brett is someone who uses a wheelchair, the action of ‘meeting me outside’ with his luggage wasn’t as easy or accessible as for an able-bodied person. This first interaction was the beginning of understanding how PWDs potentially travel. After we successfully figured out how to load Brett’s wheelchair into my car, we were off to Adopo to discuss our working project for HRT-410 over pizza.
Over dinner, we shared similar popular culture references and our mutual love for The Big Lebowski abiding as The Dude does. His spirit and attitude was warm and inviting and our mutual passion for social equity was apparent - even though he identifies as a White, cisgendered, heterosexual man, the intersection of being a PWD shared similar biases and disadvantages as my identity as a woman in our society. We spoke about how PWDs earn 13.6% less than able-bodied people and are significantly more likely to lose a job, be unemployed, or refused the promotion or position. Compared with the Gender Pay Gap where women working full-time, year-round earn just 80 cents for every dollar that men earn - not to mention Women of Color earn less than White women. We shared our stories regarding discrimination and vowed to continue persisting as social equity fighters … even though it is challenging and filled with frustration, pain, depression, and disappointment.
During Brett’s week in Knoxville, he visited our classroom and shared with the students his lived experiences, not specifically as a PWD, but as a human being wanting and deserving of respect and dignity - and access to a damn roll in shower! He focused on inspiring the students to put forth as much effort and passion as humanely possibly with everything they do and reiterated that, “we live in a vertically biased world.”
Brett’s visit was also coupled with a class site visit to his hotel at the Downtown Hilton to view what an accessible or ADA room looks like, how he views the property in terms of accessibility, and how we can be more aware of PWDs guests’ needs if our students will work in the industry. Part of this project is educating our students to become fully aware of PWDs expectations and needs when traveling so that they can share this knowledge with hotel front of house staff in Knoxville, our RHTM advisory board, and at the Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association (GHKA) monthly meeting in April. Additionally, our students will help generate reviews for Brett’s website, as part of their overall grade, consisting of tips to assist PWDs when visiting Knoxville. Hopefully, instilling the skills to be allies for PWDs can potentially encourage them to be advocates for social equity and seduce universal design within hospitality and tourism.
Brett’s visit to Knoxville ended appropriately … over a beer and margarita on a Wednesday evening on Gay Street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we successfully navigated the streets and curb cuts of Knoxville in the rain, facilitated great conversations with our students and community, and wrapped up any loose ends with the project and expectations we had for our students moving forward.
Brett’s visit to Knoxville taught me more than I was expecting … he mentioned early on during his visit for us to notice the person not the chair. Although he shared that the chair is essentially part of him … it isn’t only him. I teach my students that in order for us to move toward diversity and inclusion, we must actively and empathetically see and listen to people with different lived experiences. However, as my students continue to work on their presentations and projects, I wonder will this project have a lasting effect on them? Is this helping to foster change or an awareness around PWDs? Or is it just another project simply for a grade to graduate? Only time will tell …