Opening Remarks at the First SATH World Congress, January 1997

In 1976, with some thirty years of experience in the travel industry as a travel agent, international tour operator and airline executive, I realized that there was one Final Frontier which had not been recognized as an important goal by our industry as a whole-namely, the enormous untapped market of the then 40 or so millions of Americans with Disabilities who were largely excluded from the possibilities of tourism.

The industry was growing fast and much new investment was available for the expanding infrastructure. At the same time, Civil Rights and Equality of Opportunity were in the air. Changing lifestyles and medical advances were increasing the life expectancy of the population as a whole, but people who were unfortunate enough to have a disability were being excluded from much of the benefit this new society had to offer.

So I, together with a few people who thought as I did, decided that we had to do something to redress the situation. On the one hand, we needed to educate the travel industry as to the economic possibilities of this underdeveloped market. On the other hand, we needed to inform the population with disabilities that they could join the mainstream in travel, as well as in other aspects of their everyday life. We offered them Dignity and Opportunity, not Charity or Welfare. Our mottos were “No Discounts for the Handicapped,” “Charity No, Services Yes,” and later, “Jobs by Ability not Disability.”

The result was that airlines and other forms of transportation made millions of dollars, people with disabilities were able to expect to travel with dignity, and the market in travel expanded exponentially with each increase in the rights of persons with disabilities to be considered as normal travelers.

For years the travel industry organizations tried to avoid dealing with the problems that travelers with disabilities presented, but, even before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they had begun to see that this was an opportunity that they could no longer ignore. Finally, in 1996 the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) at its World Congress in Bangkok conferred on me, representing SATH, their highest award, and induction into their Travel Hall of Fame. Concerning the work that SATH had done, they said, “Yesterday’s travel goals are today’s floor.” However, there are still many new goals which have to be reached before we are able to say we have obtained the level playing field we set out to create.

At the same Congress, ASTA announced its sponsorship with American Express of SATH’s World Partnership in Awareness. This will meet annually at the ASTA World Congress to deal with the problems of participating nations in respect of their receptive services for travelers with disabilities and mature travelers. Around the world, new initiatives are being developed to open tourism to all. So today, we invite all these nations to join with us in insuring that well before the new millennium this will become a reality.

The United States has led the way to the future by creating the most open society for those with disabilities, and Florida, where we are meeting, has been among the leaders in this field. We welcome you all to this, our first SATH World Travel Congress for Travelers with Disabilities, and hope that you will return home determined to carry the message of this meeting with you. Everyone gains from opening the doors for people with disabilities who want to travel like everyone else.

Murray Vidockler, CTC
Founder and Chairman, SATH