The winding turns, potholes, open sewers, and stray dogs make the streets of this northern Nicaraguan town tough to negotiate – let alone in a wheelchair.
"It's the worst ever, without a doubt," says Craig Grimes, with a laugh, as he grasps a signpost to pull his wheelchair up onto a street curb. "A lot of people in Matagalpa don't know how to use their wheelchairs, because no one has ever taught them. I've been showing people in wheelchairs how to get around their own city, and they've lived here their whole lives."
Mr. Grimes, who today is launching the world's first instant online booking engine for disabled travelers, has dedicated the past five years of his life to helping people with disabilities become more adventurous. From helping a quadriplegic woman from England attend her son's wedding in Barcelona, to showing Nicaraguan war victims how to navigate the streets of Matagalpa in a wheelchair, the British advocate has been helping disabled people around the world – through his various smaller travel Web pages and in person – to push their limits and challenge their comfort zones.
Immediately after being discharged from a British hospital after falling out of a tree and breaking his back 12 years ago, Grimes boarded a plane with a friend and spent two weeks traveling around Holland – his first test of life in a wheelchair.
"After an accident, you can either sink into depression, or get on with your life," Grimes says, adding that he was "more depressed before the accident." He's since traveled to 13 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
"I truly believe that travel is rehabilitation. I am living proof of it," he says.
Now, Grimes wants to help other people with disabilities experience the same.
On Feb. 19, Grimes will launch www.accessible.travel, which he hopes will serve as a "Travelocity for disabled travelers."
The booking engine will allow travelers with disabilities to search handicap-accessible hotels by city, price, and levels of accessibility, then book their rooms directly online.
Users can also book airport transfers in specially equipped vehicles, mobility equipment, guided tours, and museum passes, among other services.
The site will list in-depth information and hotel descriptions for people with disabilities, and will eventually allow visitors to view virtual maps of hotel bathrooms to make sure the dimensions and specifications meet their needs.
"Accessible for one disabled person is not the same as accessible for another," Grimes says.
In a time of economic recession, when tourism numbers are already dropping, advocates say the travel industry would be wise to focus more attention on the growing tourism niche for people with disabilities, which already represents a $13.6 billion annual market in the US alone, according to a study by the Chicago-based advocacy group Open Doors Organization.
A separate study by the group revealed that 21 million US adults with disabilities traveled for business or pleasure in 2003-04.
"It has been very evident that people with disabilities prefer to travel during low seasons to avoid the crowds, which will make their trips less complicated," Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the New York-based Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH). "At a time when the airlines are looking for more revenue, this is a very viable market."
Grimes hopes that accessible.travel will make traveling a less complicated prospect even before people leave the house, by serving as an online community for people to share information and book the services they need in advance. "I care about the clients and their needs, because I have the same issues," he says.
At first, accessible.travel will start by offering booking options for eight cities around the world: Athens, Barcelona, Brussels, Oslo, Paris, Prague, San Francisco, and Melbourne. Once the page starts generating revenue, Grimes hopes add at least one new city to each month.
Like all good ideas, necessity was the mother of invention for Grimes's early efforts.
When he was traveling on his own in Barcelona in 2003, Grimes said he couldn't believe the lack of information available for disabled travelers available; even major guidebooks such as Lonely Planet were of no use to him, he says. So, after "hassling" the industry leaders for months to no avail, Grimes decided to make his own free travel guide for disabled travelers, www.accessiblebarcelona.com.
Soon, the page was turning a profit and wheels of innovation were turning in Grime's head.
AccessibleBarcelona, and his subsequent effort, www.accessiblenicaragua.com, which he started after moving to Matagalpa with his Spanish girlfriend, Edurne Larracoechea, in 2007, have since become the prototypes for the much more ambitious accessible.travel.
Those who've seen Grimes in action before have little doubt about his determination or ability to get things done under difficult circumstances.
"Craig has never ceased to amaze us," says Alex Leff, a former neighbor in Barcelona. "I am pretty amazed and impressed with what he's pulling off. He's always had a passion for traveling and [a knack] for setting up companies abroad, which is something few people can do. He's got the drive."
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