Lifelifters Transport: Accessible Tourism and the Socially Conscious Business Idea

Some companies add CSR (corporate social responsibility) to their business portfolio: others build their businesses around it.  The Philippine company Lifelifters Transport Inc. is a good example of the latter. Its establishment was driven by a socially-conscious impetus: the idea that accessible transport should be a possibility instead of just a wish.

Operating in the country’s capital, Lifelifters runs what one may essentially call a vehicle rental service.  Customers call them to set up appointments and schedule the use of a car—or a Wheelchair Van, in this case—and the company provides the vehicle along with the driver for the client’s use.  To that end, it’s much like many other car rental agencies both in and out of the country.  Unlike many other car rental agencies, though, it specializes in serving a particular sort of client: the differently-abled.

wheelchair van back door

Wheelchair Vans from LifeLifters

To that end, Lifelifters offers a specially modified vehicle for its client base.  The consumers are the wheelchair-bound trying to get around the perpetually busy streets of Metro Manila.  The company’s wheelchair van for hire is equipped with a hydraulic lift designed to make getting on or off vehicles easier for such clients.  With the Lifelifters van, a PWD or person with (a) disability can be conveyed to any location in the metro with an absolute minimum of discomfort.

It’s not something an average person worries about, perhaps, but process of finding, boarding, and even getting off transport is troublesome for many differently-abled people.  The mere process of getting on a car involves a progression of steps that are reiterated like rituals.  One has to be lifted off the chair and to a seat in the car.  This can be painful for some, especially those with injuries.  The chair has to be folded up and tucked away.  The reverse has to take place at each dismount.  And if one has a lot of stops to make—or a lot of sights to see, if one is a tourist—that can mean a great deal of effort and potential discomfort for something other people do so quickly, without even really thinking about it.


balanced wheelchair van philippines

Using the Van’s Hydraulic Lift

Meeting a Long-marginal Demand

There’s long been a mistaken assumption by many that differently-abled people don’t like to travel.  But in truth, what they dislike may merely be the hurdles they meet rather than the travelling itself.  Travel is twice as stressful for the differently-abled for many reasons, chief of them being the fact that the provisions made for them are not nearly as ubiquitous as the ones made for others.  Architects will integrate stairs into building plans to ensure that people can get from one floor to another, but not all shall add a lift or ramp to ensure that even those in wheelchairs can do the same.  Some architects do it: most don’t.

Things are changing, though.  Accessible (or what some call “inclusive”) infrastructure and transport provisions are becoming more common as people begin to take note of this lack.  It’s a growing consciousness that’s manifesting all around the world.  In 2010, the fully accessible Morgan’s Wonderland opened in the US.  Even more recently, the launch of the Inclusive London website saw millions logging on to browse London tourism’s accessible side.  And in the Philippines, the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) recently managed to get a proclamation signed that designates 2013-2022 “The Philippine Decade of Make the Rights Real for Persons with Disabilities”.  People seem to be responding now to what has been a thus-far-marginal demand.

But should it really be considered a marginal demand in the sense of being economically insignificant?  Accessible tourism is no longer a charitable cause alone: as rising numbers of PWD and senior tourism suggest, it’s also a great investment opportunity.  And with some reports pegging its market worth at $13.5 billion for the US alone, it’s easy to see why.

It’s an investment like any other, though, which means something has to be put in for something to come out. In that respect, it may be more or less understandable for people to expect more accessible tourism from developed countries—which, goes the logic, have more to invest in it.  But a lot of developing countries are actually becoming more conscious of the needs of PWDs too.  It’s a consciousness that we see being acted upon not just within public machinery or charitable organizations but even, interestingly enough, in the private economic sector as well.  Companies like the recently-established Lifelifters are proof of that.


An Uphill Ride on Wheels

It still is an uphill course.  A lot of countries have a long way to go yet when it comes to providing for accessible transport and tourism.  It wasn’t too long ago that the first Southeast Asian Conference on Accessible Travel foundered in its own sightseeing schedule upon discovering its host country’s (Malaysia’s) infrastructure lacking disability access.  That same year, a differently-abled woman getting off her flight in Singapore was asked to pay around 300 Singaporean dollars for the use of a wheelchair lift to bring her comfortably down from the plane.

It was done without any prior warning of the costs and even though the airline had been informed ahead of time that a PWD on a wheelchair was on board.  For the record, the woman demurred and crawled down the stairs instead.  And while some people may choose to interpret this as the shady side of the private sector cashing in on accessible tourism, others (including many in that same sector) will disagree: there’s an elegant and socially-conscious way of building a business around a serious social need, as well as an inelegant and less-than-generous one.

Most of the more laudable companies in accessible tourism integrate genuine generosity and social conscience into their operations.  They do more than nod to accessibility or engage in a flirtation with the advocacy: there’s constancy in what they do.  And that sort of commitment makes all the difference, besides resonating better with the consumer public.

For example, Lifelifters isn’t only involved in and supportive of local PWD NGO God is Able but also does its part to promote accessibility in the country.  It even offers free two-way rides for PWDs in Manila. Granted, the company does ask for a review or write-up of their services in exchange, but that’s a mild price for the convenience they offer and still more than generous.  Can one imagine, in the case of the tourist who had to crawl onto the tarmac in Singapore, that Lifelifters wouldn’t have offered the service for free had they been the wheelchair lift company?  Or the airline, for that matter?


The Potential Power of the Accessible Tourism Industry

Even in the Philippines, Lifelifters remains one of the few players in what many consider a niche market.  But it’s a market that more businessmen are most likely going to be taking notice of soon, and not just those in the foreign tourism industry either.  Many local establishments are beginning to see how promoting accessibility can help them in myriad ways.  It’s said that most establishments nowadays are marketing experiences more than solid goods as their products: if so, shouldn’t a more inclusive, more widely accessible experience not only be good for their market range and profits but also their social image?

The differently-abled make up as much as 15% of the global population, according to some estimates.  If one of the most popular goals companies set for CSR is that of aiding excluded minorities to have better quality of life, it’s somewhat surprising that we don’t see more accessibility-focused CSR projects than we currently do then.  15% of humanity is a big number, which means accessibility projects would be deemed relevant—and for PR and marketing purposes—interesting for a lot of people.  And a lot of those people, businessmen have to remember, are consumers too.  The social importance and economic benefit of letting more consumers access what you (or others) have to offer isn’t really radical or novel, so one could say neither is accessible tourism.  Instead, it’s just plain good thinking.

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