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Students in a hospitality and tourism class at UT spent spring semester blending classroom learning with real-world experience to improve accessibility in Knoxville’s hospitality industry.

Presenting to staff and management at the Crowne Plaza, Downtown Hilton Knoxville, and Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association in March and April, the students in Strategic Planning for the Hospitality and the Tourism Industry provided hospitality industry professionals with tips and strategies for better accommodating people with disabilities.

“It was shocking and surprising to see the lack of accessibility in our industry,” said Taylor Pope, a junior from Clarksville, Tennessee. “We really went full-on into the project and it was very eye-opening for us.”

Stefanie Benjamin, assistant professor of retail, hospitality, and tourism management, challenges her students through projects intended to contribute to hospitality practice in the region. In the past three years, her class has organized projects to develop more sustainable tourism practices in downtown Lenoir City and Anderson County, and supported the efforts of Knoxville hotels to lower turnover rates in their front-of-house staffs.

This semester, Benjamin brought in Brett Heising, founder of the accessibility-focused travel review site, to work with students to assess facilities.

“We had the chance to go with Brett into an ADA room and see what he was talking about with roll-in showers, heights of desks, whether there was too much furniture in a room to be able to move around,” said Abby McLaughlin, a senior from Brentwood, Tennessee, who will begin a management training program in Chattanooga after graduation.

After their time with Heising, students developed presentations and handouts focused on how industry professionals in the area could improve experiences for guests with disabilities, and generated reviews for

McLaughlin and her classmates focused their tips around a straightforward question: “Will a person with a disability feel welcomed in this environment?”

For Heising, it’s a question that should be front of mind for hospitality workers.

“There are 57 million adults in the US with permanent physical disabilities. We spend anywhere from $34 billion to $40 billion [on travel]. It’s not a niche market. If you treat us with the respect we deserve, we’ll come back to your property.”

Learning about people-first language and accessibility had a personal and professional benefit for Pope, who plans to work in event planning.

“Most people will experience a member of their family or someone they know having a disability at some point in their life,” Pope said.

Knowing ahead of time whether a venue will provide an accessible experience for family members with a disability will help ensure the best experience possible for guests.

“It’s about showing everyone respect,” Pope said, “regardless of whether or not they have a disability.”

Benjamin imagines that Pope, McLaughlin, and others will take an empathetic approach toward helping improve the industry.

“Students are already starting to make suggestions at the companies they work for now,” Benjamin said. “I want them to hone their soft skill development, but more importantly I want them to help make our hospitality and tourism industries more inclusive for marginalized groups, including people with disabilities.”


Brian Canever (865-974-0937,

Jules Morris (865-719-7072,