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Difference Maker

One man helps the disabled see the world

Craig Grimes broke his back 12 years ago. From Nicaragua, he launches the first online booking engine for disabled travelers.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2009

Pioneer: British advocate Craig Grimes launches the world's first online booking engine for disabled travelers this week.

Tim Rogers


Matagalpa, Nicaragua

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.

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"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, 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.