Making Accessibility Second Nature, with Cory Lee

Episode 103

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Cory Lee is a travel blogger and advocate accessibility to accommodate disabilities of all kinds. At a young age, Cory was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, but that certainly did not diminish his desire to travel. He has visited destinations on six of seven continents (Antarctica is still on the to-visit list!)

Since starting his blog, in 2013, he has gained more than 50,000 followers across social media and his blog won the prestigious 2017 Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Blog. He has written for National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and is a frequent contributor to New Mobility magazine. Corey hopes to inspire others to break out of their comfort zones and start rolling around the world.

On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Cory about the challenges and opportunities with accessibility in the travel and tourism industry. Did you know that people with some form of disability spend $13 Billion a year on travel? If you’re not thinking about accessibility, you are leaving money on the table.

What You Will Learn:

  • Finding your audience as a travel writer to attract destinations to work with you
  • Why destinations need to clearly advertise their accessibility to people with disabilities
  • How to advocate for accessibility accommodations in real time
  • Considering accessibility in your group tour programs
  • The details to attend to in planning an accessible trip
  • Creative ideas to make your destination even more accessible

Don’t Make Accessibility Your Untapped Market

25 percent of the world has some form of disability. This huge market segment actually spends over $13,000,000,000 per year just on travel, which represents a tremendous opportunity. If you are a destination with wheelchair accessibility, for example, make sure this is clearly stated in multiple ways in all of your points of internet presence. People with disabilities often need to plan more carefully when they travel, so giving as much info up front is always a good policy.

Speak Up and Speak Out

The travel and tourism industry is about helping people have a great travel experience, and the word “accessibility” can mean a lot of things. When traveling with a disability, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If the destination truly wants your business, they will do all they can to make your stay amazing.


Speaker 1: 00:01 You’ve arrived at destination on the left with Nicole Mahoney, learn from the experience of travel and tourism experts who use collaboration and creativity to attract more visitors, strengthen their marketing programs, and reimagine how their industry does business.

Nicole Mahoney: 00:17 Hello listeners. This is Nicole Mahoney, host of destination. On the left. I am passionate about travel and tourism and love learning from the experiences of professionals in the industry. That is why I’m so excited to introduce today’s guest. He was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, but that certainly is not diminished to the desire to travel wheelchair he has traversed in six times and blocks about is accessible

Nicole Mahoney: 00:46 and sometimes not so accessible. Travel Adventures on curb free with Corey Lee Dot Com. Since starting his blog in 2013, he has gained more than 50,000 followers across social media and his black won the prestigious 2017 Lowell Thomas Award for best travel blog. He has written for National Geographic, lonely planet and is a frequent contributor to new mobility magazine. Corey hopes to inspire others to break out of their comfort zones and start rolling around the world. Thank you so much for joining me for free.

Cory Lee: 01:22 Yeah. Thank you for having me, Nicole. I’m really excited to be here. So thank you.

Nicole Mahoney: 01:26 Yes. I’m, I’m so excited to have you here. And, and so our listeners know you were recently recently in the finger lakes, which is where I am located and where we’re recording this podcast because you were part of the, uh, seat backs or travel bloggers exchange that happened down there in corning, New York.

Cory Lee: 01:44 Yeah, I’m a big fan so that’s always the conference that I really, really tried to go to every year and it was uh, was really excited that it was in the finger lakes and that really gave me a chance to come to New York outside of New York City for the first time and it was just a really beautiful area with so much to offer and I think it was a really great feedback as well.

Nicole Mahoney: 02:06 That’s awesome. That’s great. And that, and I’m glad you enjoyed yourself and um, I’ll be looking forward to, to hearing some of your insights if not on the finger lakes, but on all of your adventures that you have. Um, but before we get started, could you tell us a little bit about your story in your own words? I find it adds so much more context to our conversation.

Cory Lee: 02:24 Yeah, for sure. So, um, I really started traveling when I was four years old. That’s really the first trip that I ever remember going on and it was just to like Disney world. But, um, my mom actually worked in a school when I was younger, so she would be off work for like three months every summer and we would really use the summers to come to the explorer domestically within the u s and does it places like Florida or Washington DC and New York City on the east coast. And then when I turned 15, when you started taking things internationally and we went to the Bahamas and that was really the first time that I ever got to see kind of like a different culture or different way of life and try new foods and just being able to experience a different culture there. It just sparked something inside of me that made me want to travel much, much further.

Cory Lee: 03:16 And um, so then in December of 2013, I was one semester away from actually graduating college with a degree in marketing and I’ve been researching for a trip to Australia and I started noticing that there really wasn’t a ton of information online about wheelchair accessibility within Australia. And so just seeing that lack of information, it really inspired me to make my website, which is now [inaudible] dot com and kind of put everything that I knew about traveling the world out there for other wheelchair users to see and hopefully benefit from. And so it’s almost five years old. The website is and sets. I started, uh, it’s been really a whirlwind adventure and I’ve visited six continents and got to do some pretty awesome things all around the world. So I’m really thankful that I started at when I didn’t have been able to have some really good experiences.

Nicole Mahoney: 04:13 That’s so cool. And you know, um, I’ve got to say it, you’ve got to be really inspirational to other wheelchair users but not just wheelchair users. What I love is about how, how your bio, how you ended it, but really inspiring others to break out of their comfort zones. And um, I think that that is, that it’s such a, such an aspirational goal, but I’ll bet you’re actually really getting there.

Cory Lee: 04:37 Yeah, I think, I mean really I started the blog just for other wheelchair users but now, but it has conduct, you know, I’ve gained a lot of social media followers and a lot of breeders on the website and I mean people that are just able bodied or now like reaching out to me and they’re like, oh, I saw you went to Morocco or wherever I was. And now I book the trip there. And like, so I think even if, I mean even almost everyone has at least a friend or a family member with a disability, the disability market is just phenomenally huge. Um, I think it’s like 25 percent of the world has some form of disability, whether that’s emotional or physical or any number of different disabilities. But um, so I mean I am always happy when I’m hearing from other wheelchair users or able bodied people that are inspired. It’s always good to hear.

Nicole Mahoney: 05:28 Yeah, that’s really incredible. Um, before we dive into the questions, I’d, I’d like to know a little bit more about how you got started with the blog and, and how you started to build your audience. Can you share a little bit about that?

Cory Lee: 05:40 Yeah. So I come to cover it a little bit of how I started it in 2013 just from there really being a lack of information online. But, um, I kinda, when I was starting out I really started building it by just trying to grow my social media numbers. So that was really a huge thing for me in the beginning. I really wanted to build up an audience just so that, you know, later on down the road, a few years from then after I started, they would still be hopefully engaged and um, I knew that if I had a big enough audience that destinations will hopefully start reaching out, wanting to work together and um, so really, really focused a lot on facebook, twitter, instagram, and I’ll still do today. And so, um, I mean facebook is really one of my top sources of traffic. Pinterest is really great and then twitter is kind of dying, but I’ll still use it a little bit. And then instagram also, of course.

Nicole Mahoney: 06:34 That’s awesome. Um, yeah, of course instagram and I like how you kind of approached it by building the audience first or really understanding that you needed that audience to start with. So, um, I’m really looking forward to your insights. I think our listeners are going to learn a lot from you. So let’s just dive right in. And our first topic is around the subject of creativity. And you know, the tourism and hospitality industry is very competitive. There’s lots, you know, lots of choices out there and so I’m wondering, um, either you know, what you have seen or what you have done, where you’ve seen destinations that, who can really stand out from the crowd.

Cory Lee: 07:12 Yeah. So some destinations are definitely better than others when it comes to accessibility. So whenever I’m thinking of visiting a place, really the first thing that I look for is just their website and I’m on their website. I’ll search for wheelchair accessibility and if it’s on the website then I’m like pretty eager to work with that destination and see what they offer. But if you know there’s no accessibility information on the website, then it really just makes it a lot more difficult for me to actually plan a trip and figure out what exactly is accessible. So I would think, I would say to any destinations that may be listening, just please list the information on your website to make it easy for not only us accessible travel bloggers, but for every wheelchair user that is thinking of your destination.

Nicole Mahoney: 08:02 And um, I, I’m guessing that if they are going to be listed, it sounds like easy easily to find. Right. So perhaps like a little icon that might be next to a listing isn’t really what you’re looking for. You kind of need it to be searchable.

Cory Lee: 08:16 Right? Definitely. I mean even, you know, in the menu bar just put something like accessibility or something like that in the menu bar or in your Faq section. A lot of websites have like a frequently asked questions and that’s kind of the first place that I always go to to because sometimes they’ll put like is your attraction accessible? And they’ll answer it right there. So that’s usually the first place that I look. So having it there, having a really on multiple places on your website would really be fantastic and Nobel a lot.

Nicole Mahoney: 08:50 That’s terrific. And I would imagine, I mean I know your specific to wheelchair users, but as you mentioned you have other folks with disabilities and able bodied folks that are following you. But I would imagine as a destination starts to think about accessibility. It goes beyond just the wheelchair user.

Cory Lee: 09:07 Yeah, for sure. I mean there are so many different disabilities. I’m actually have spinal muscular atrophy, which was a form of muscular dystrophy and just with muscular dystrophy I think there are like over 50 or over 60 different forms of muscular dystrophy. So you really never know what disability is, not just one term. There are so many variations to that and so really trying to figure out, you know, if I call a hotel and I’ll say, do you have any accessible rooms? They may say, Oh yeah, yeah, we have accessible rooms, but what does accessible mean for that hotel or that business? Um, so really just listing the information again on your website, really knowing to what degree is tremendously helpful. I mean as your attraction or destination accessible for people with a hearing impairment or visually impaired or a wheelchair user. Um, any, a number of things. There are lots of disabilities out there, but I promise you that it can be, it can be done really well if you just do the research.

Nicole Mahoney: 10:17 That’s great. Can you, um, through all of your travels, um, are there a few destinations that stand out in your mind that are really doing it right, they have the experience down and, um, that you might be able to point us to?

Cory Lee: 10:30 Yeah. So there are some really, really great ones. I’m one of the best is actually Israel, so I visited Israel a few years ago and then I went again a couple of years ago. I’m a felon. I’m completely in love with Israel. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, but if you go to their website, they have tons of information about wheelchair accessibility around visceral, which is just amazing and something that I really never expected from a destination. And the Middle East. I mean it’s totally unexpected and I honestly never thought that I would get to visit Israel or anywhere in the Middle East. They are doing a phenomenal job. Um, a lot of places around Europe are doing really good. And then in the US I think that, um, there are definitely some good destinations. I did a press trip a couple of years ago to the mall of America and I’m actually wrote about wheelchair accessibility at the mall of America on my website and then they reached out to me after that and they have now an entire accessibility guide on their website and um, it’s just remarkable what they’ve done and I’m really happy that I got to be a part of it.

Nicole Mahoney: 11:39 That’s awesome. Those are some great examples. Um, I was actually just at mall of America myself a few weeks ago on a trip my kid said, but ma’am, we didn’t spend enough time here. I thought I said that was by. Okay. So those are some really great tips and um, I think that that’s such a great place to start, which is really weird that, you know, with the website being able to point out, um, you know, what is accessible and um, the next thing I want to ask you about, which is an interesting question for you because I’m, of course, I think you’re, you’re, you’re breaking all the, you know, all the odds with this one. But I do like to think about when you’re faced with some sort of a challenge, what kind of creativity might come out of it? Um, I think you’re a great example of, you know, faced with the challenge, what kind of creativity can come out of it. But does anything come to mind in terms of, in terms of that?

Cory Lee: 12:40 Every time that I travel I’ve never had a trip go up 100 percent smooth. I don’t think any of us travelers have ever really challenging for everyone that has a perfect trip. But with me, there are definitely a lot more challenges probably just when it comes to flying with the wheelchair, with the wheelchair be damaged or um, I mean even with that, I’ve had a few creative solutions. Uh, when I used to fly, I would just pretty much risk and hope that my wheelchair, it doesn’t get damaged during flight. But then in the past couple of years I’ve started, um, you know, taking some parts of the wheelchair off and putting them in a carry on bag just so it leaves less, less chance for the wheelchair to be damaged or certain parts of it anyway, and then really I’m printing out signs and taping them to the wheelchair with instructions of how to loaded or unloaded or event or any number of things.

Cory Lee: 13:41 But he’ll say do take the wheelchair from me. And they actually stood in the cargo area with the luggage. So for the whole flight on without it and it’s getting tossed around and they’re having to load it without me being there watching them. So that’s always like I’m always nervous wreck whenever that’s happening and I’m usually thinking about it the entire flight. But then even at hotels I may tell a hotel beforehand and they say that they are accessible and they have everything I need. But then when I get there it’s maybe not quite as accessible as I was promised it would be. And so, uh, I mean really just whenever I do kind of start experiencing light and accessibility or see where there could be improvements, I mean really just talk to the people that are in towards like ask for the management or the maintenance people and they’re usually more than willing to help out. I was actually in Barbados or another conference a couple of weeks ago and um, to get out onto our balcony, that was a pretty good size step, but we went and talked to the management and by the next day they had actually built a wooden ramp to and put it on her balcony for me to use. So that was just, I thought it was really kind and nice of them to do that. Um, I mean it really just speak up and speak out whenever you say something that needs done.

Nicole Mahoney: 15:01 Yeah. And I think that that’s just a terrific example of the hospitality industry, right? And how, you know, and how we really do take care of our guests and speaking up and asking for you need and then giving them the opportunity to, you know, to help you in that way. Like that example in Barbados. I think that’s a great example. Um, so corey, is there anything that looking into the future that you’re working on now or is there a project you’re particularly excited about that’s coming up?

Cory Lee: 15:28 Yeah, well I am actually going to India next month. I’m so excited for and um, it’s going to be a press trip with a company there that’s actually pretty new. So they opened two years ago and they now do wheelchair accessible tours all over India. So that’s another destination like Israel that I just never really thought that I would get to visit. But it’s now possible. Um, so I’m really excited for that. And then next year I’m going to be leading my second Daniel curb, so I’m going to be going with some other wheelchair users to Iceland and leading a group to her. And I could not be more excited for that. I’ve actually went to London a few years ago and have just a really amazing time, so I’m excited to finally get to do it, what, um, some of my followers and other people with disabilities that are going to us one for the first time and um, over the next few years I really want to delve more into, I’m doing group tours and things like that and I usually do. I actually did my first one earlier this year in Morocco. Um, and so next year will be the second one and then I would eventually like to do it two or three times a year instead of just once per year. But those are a couple of the things that have gotten me really excited for the future.

Nicole Mahoney: 16:45 Yeah, those, those are awesome. That sounds really exciting. I love this. The India trip and that they have specific wheelchair accessible towards. I think that’s really fantastic. And then um, and the group tours, how many people typically or do you, do you try to aim for, to take with you?

Cory Lee: 17:03 Uh, well, with the wheelchair accessible to where we really can’t say to too many because if we have a pretty large bus, it can really only hold like three or four wheelchairs. Um, so we’re aiming for between eight and 10, somewhere between that number.

Nicole Mahoney: 17:23 Great. That’s wonderful. And I think that’s probably a great opportunity, not only for you but also for your followers. You know, you’re a trusted resource, right? And you’re actually kind of living, living in and helping them get out of their comfort zone and see the world. I think that’s really incredible. It’s very exciting.

Cory Lee: 17:42 Requesting group tours for a few years and kept asking me about it. And then finally I was like, okay, I’m going go to the try. And um, so we actually did it this earlier this year in April and Morocco and it was a tremendous success. And so after that I said I’m going to make this an annual tradition, so I’m really happy that they asked for it and that it was successful.

Nicole Mahoney: 18:05 Gears a little bit and talk about collaboration. That’s another subject that we really like to focus on, uh, on the show. And, um, I’d imagine you’ve got a lot of examples of collaborations, maybe especially the way you collaborate with destinations. Um, I’m wondering if there’s a collaboration that you can describe that you know, that you’ve been part of, um, and that’s been really successful for you.

Cory Lee: 18:31 Yeah. Um, so really I would say one of the biggest and one of the desks was actually with them aside from a destination not going to be talking about the destination and a little bit, but I’m with quickie wheelchairs, which is actually the company that makes my wheelchair. And so a few years ago I actually reached out to their marketing department and asked if there was any way that maybe we could work together. And um, so they actually let me brought a blog post for their website just about traveling as a wheelchair user. Um, and then I’ve done a few pieces for them on that. And so earlier this, this past summer actually, they reached out to me and wanted me to film some videos for their website and their youtube channel and I’m just like commercial style videos, um, and the quickie wheelchair. And then we did another facebook live event earlier this year and I’m just gonna Perfect collaboration and I think the, whenever you’re trying to form a collaboration, it’s really important to find partners that really worked for you and maybe that you use on a daily basis, but I mean, quickie wheelchairs is, it isn’t necessarily like a company devoted to travel, um, which is different for me and kind of a different angle that I took, but it is something that I use every day in my life.

Cory Lee: 19:55 So it made perfect sense to form a collaboration with them and be a brand ambassador for them. So, um, I think just, you know, come to think outside the box whenever you’re thinking about forming collaborations and it’ll be the best ones. Really.

Nicole Mahoney: 20:10 Yeah. I think that’s a really great example. And, and you’re right on so many times, you know, we might think, um, more specifically within our industry, but I am certain that there’s lots of collaborations out there. Um, if you think about who might be well aligned, right, with what you’re trying to accomplish. So yeah, that’s a great example. Um, I would like you to talk a little bit about how you work with destinations, um, you know, or, or hotels or media partners, um, because I think a lot of our listeners might be thinking, what if we wanted to host you or you know, how, how does that kind of a collaboration work?

Cory Lee: 20:45 So really the planning for me, whenever I’m wanting to work with the destination, it usually starts pretty far in advance, so I would say like six months in advance on average. Um, so I’ll start kind of planning, but because it does take longer to figure out, you know, wheelchair accessible transportation or what attractions are accessible or restaurants or which hotel has the right accessible room that I can use any number of things. So it does take a lot of planning and then um, whenever I worked, but the destination, I mean I really just ask them, you know, what they’re looking for, what they like me to create content for my website or videos or didn’t like, thanks the, that sir, should I create content for their website as well? Or instead of mine are really just try to customize it to each destination that I’m working with, but it does take a lot of planning, make an accessible trip honestly. Um, but, um, I mean I’m always like, whenever I work with the destination, they’ll constantly aml and asked me questions like, will this attraction, you know, it has like a two inch step to get in. And do you think that are, you know, I’m always happy to talk with the destination and try to figure out a way to make it work, flows. Anything almost can be made accessible in some way. It just makes like a bit of creativity to make it happen.

Nicole Mahoney: 22:13 Yeah. That’s awesome. So do you find that when you do go to a destination, you did give us the example of mall of America, but I would imagine through that planning process you’re actually teaching the destination a lot about,

Cory Lee: 22:27 I would say 90 percent of the time that I am the first wheelchair user the destination has ever worked with. Um, and so, I mean, a really good example was when I went to, um, Gulf shores, Alabama a couple years ago and I went there and I was the first wheelchair user that they had ever worked with and so it really gives them a really good opportunity to learn exactly how accessible Gulf shores was, um, where are the beach wheelchairs or what can they do to make it more accessible? And so after that I’ve stayed in contact with them and became really good friends with the PR people for Gulf shores, Alabama and um, they’ve really worked to make it even more accessible than it was when I went the last time. And so I’m actually going to be going there again next week and so I’m really excited to see what improvements have been made since then.

Nicole Mahoney: 23:21 Yeah, that’s, that’s really incredible because I think the education, I’m not just for the visitor but for the industry is really important, especially when you’re talking about, you know, about accessibility and um, and hosting a folks of all types of abilities actually. So I think that’s a really great point. Um, so I’m curious, you mentioned earlier, you know, and I, and we were talking a little bit earlier about ti backs and then you mentioned you were at another show recently. How do you use those shows? Um, you know, in terms of building your own business and building your, what you’re doing, how do those. Yeah,

Cory Lee: 24:00 usually the only person in a wheelchair there. So it kind of makes it easier for me I think even as kind of a benefit because there aren’t really any other wheelchairs are wheelchair users there. And so I’m pretty much the only one so it’s a really unique angle that I can give to any destination that I’m wanting to pitch or work with. And so whenever I had a conference I really tried to go to like all of the speed networking events or um, and really talk to as many destinations as possible and figure out, you know, if they do know anything about accessibility within their destination. And, um, if they don’t, then I really am happy to work with them and try to, you know, figure out how I could go there and what I would be able to do and um, so really, I mean conferences for me are, it’s all about just talking to as many people as possible and trying to figure out a way to make it work for their destination and really showing them the importance of why they should focus on, um, accessibility because a lot of, I would say almost every destination doesn’t really know, you know exactly how many people with disabilities there are out there and like 25 percent of the world or people with disabilities actually spent over $13,000,000,000 per year just on travel.

Cory Lee: 25:21 So it’s a huge industry with a lot of money, um, that could be going to their destination, but they’re not sure how to make it work. Um, so whenever I’m at a conference, I really tried to talk to them and kind of persuade them that, yeah, it is worth focusing on people with disabilities.

Nicole Mahoney: 25:37 That’s great. Again, back to that, constantly needing to educate. And that’s really great. That’s awesome. Um, so how would a, if any of our listeners are interested in reaching out to you, how would they know what’s the best way for them to get in touch?

Cory Lee: 25:55 So, uh, just feel free to visit my website. It is curved for you with Corey Lee and there is a contact page on there, um, or you can also connect with me on facebook. It’s just with greely and send me a message and I’ll be happy to talk with you. And like indefinitely, like about wheelchair accessibility.

Nicole Mahoney: 26:15 That’s awesome. That’s fantastic. So Cory, I knew this would be a really interesting and informative conversation. I thank you so much for being with us. Are there any final thoughts that you’d like to share before we say goodbye?

Cory Lee: 26:28 Well, we’ll just say that you know, really appreciate have on here and things to you and I really look forward to hearing from anyone that is listening and I’m happy to help. Thank you so much.

Nicole Mahoney: 26:42 Thank you cory. It’s time to

Speaker 1: 26:44 hit the road again. Visit destination on the During your travels for more podcasts, show notes and fresh ideas.

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