More disabled people are traveling, but going is still tough

It has been 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. But a new study finds that while the travel industry is more accommodating to the large and lucrative disability travel market, many obstacles still face disabled travelers in the U.S.

As the ADA government website notes, the law bans discrimination against people with disabilities and allows them to participate in "the mainstream of American life" when it comes to employment, purchasing goods and services, and taking part in government.

The number of Americans with disabilities is far from small. In fact, in 2012 the U.S. Census Bureau said nearly one out of every five fell under the broad definition of having a disability in 2010.

To learn more about how the disabled fared when traveling, the Open Doors Organization (ODO) issued groundbreaking national surveys about this sector in 2002 and 2005. And its 2015 Market Study is the organization's latest look at the spending trends and marketing scope of U.S. adult travelers with disabilities.

The study polled nearly 1,300 adults with disabilities, defined as blindness, deafness, substantial cognitive issues or "a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities" such as walking or climbing stairs.

According to the ODO's new data, those travelers are generating $17.3 billion in annual spending, up from $13.6 billion in 2002. And since these individuals often travel with one or more other adults, the ODO estimates the actual economic impact is probably double its listed figures.

Over the past two years, more than 26 million adults with disabilities have traveled for either business or pleasure. ODO Director Eric Lipp said the latest study underscores the impact the disability travel market has on industries and the broader economy.

"When we carried out our first nationwide study in 2002, the goal was to wake up the travel industry to the importance of this mostly underserved market segment and give them hard numbers on which to base investment decisions," Lipp said in a press statement.

And he noted that especially in air travel, the disability market is now seen as an important source of revenue. Large airports like Miami and Minneapolis-St. Paul now provide more than 1 million wheelchair assists for passengers annually.

"And as the baby boomers continue to age," Lipp added, "you can be sure our market will keep growing for years to come."

The ODO says considerable challenges still confront travelers with disabilities, however.

The new study found 72 percent of disabled air travelers reported "major obstacles" such as physical barriers, customer service issues or communications problems when dealing with the airlines, while 65 percent had problems at airports.

But the ODO also noted those current figures are an improvement from the 2005 data, when 84 percent of disabled travelers encountered obstacles from carriers and 82 percent at airports.