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Hotels are doing more than ever to make their properties inclusive for people with disabilities, but accessibility means more than just installing a few ramps and rails. It’s a long term commitment to working with and for disabled guests and to recognising their needs.
It’s important to understand that there’s no one size fits all approach in the access and facilities world. Accessibility is different for each individual and is, to the uninitiated, a surprisingly subjective idea. Disabled facilities that work for some people won’t work for others. It’s therefore important for hotels to work with people with disabilities to make sure that their properties are working for everyone.
The key thing for making properties more inclusive is to start a dialogue with disabled people. The Equalities Act documentation suggests that companies talk to a disabled person, rather than relying purely on architects, designers and builders to get things right. When hotels fail to open up this line of communication, they can end up making avoidable mistakes, like putting the minibar too near the bed and therefore blocking wheelchair access or, on the other end of the spectrum, merely providing larger spaces for wheelchair users and forgetting to install grab rails. These mistakes are easily avoided by talking to people and getting disabled people to test out the adapted rooms.
The most accessible hotels understand that making their properties inclusive is not a one-off thing but an ongoing process. They ask disabled guests if they need any help and then if there’s anything that they could be doing better. The Dorsett Hotel in London is one venue where they clearly understand this. I was just there for a meeting, not to stay, but only had to ask if they had disabled rooms and I was immediately whisked off to be shown one. This sort of service makes it clear that they’re committed to creating a dialogue about access. This leads to them being able to make sensible decisions like putting accessible rooms near the lift so it’s not too far to walk or wheel. It’s small decisions like this that make a big difference.
Unsurprisingly, people with disabilities like to check a place out online before they visit, so hotels need to be as upfront as possible about accessibility and ideally subscribe to the principle of show, don’t tell. Use photographs and be as clear as possible about what people can expect. A simple wheelchair sign or saying “we have accessible rooms” is better than nothing but it can mean anything - remember, different people have different needs and therefore different ideas of what “accessible” means to them.
On the occasion that hotels have any more in-depth information about accessibility on their website it’s usually a written statement about code and regulations. For example, I stayed in a brilliant accessible room in Cornwall at Gwel an Mor hotel which claimed to be fitted to “M3 Assisted Living… the highest standard in disabled holiday accommodation”. That meant nothing to me! It was only when I arrived that I could see how good it was. Why, when you have the capability to show people images of your hotel, would you choose to write something so ambiguous instead?
The South Place Hotel, in London, is a hotel we’ve worked with to create a clear, visual access guide in the form of a BBS Gallery. Now potential visitors can go online and see a photographic journey through the venue. The process of creating a Gallery also acts as a training exercise and permanent resource for hotel staff. By highlighting the facilities a hotel has and addressing any obstacles, it means staff also have a good idea about what to expect. No-one wants to feel anxious or nervous about a new experience, whether they are staff or guests.
Last but unequivocally not least, don’t forget that people with access needs still have style and taste. It’s still all too rare to find hotels with accessible rooms that don’t look like a 1970s hospital ward. It’s not impossible to provide good access without compromising on style. The Zetter Hotel in London is a fantastic example of a hotel that does just this. Step free access, adapted bathrooms and accessible bedrooms, all seamlessly incorporated into the hotel’s beautifully stylish decor. And how did they achieve this? They asked disabled people for advice during the design process.