If you are ever detained in a newly built United States correctional facility – that’s a jail – you’ll be happy to know that an accessible cell will be available if your disability makes a regular cell inconvenient. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 2% of new prison accommodation must meet the Standards for Accessible Design, thanks to a growing awareness of disabilities and an ageing population.
If you’ve done nothing wrong however, and simply fancy a vacation, you might think that the hospitality industry could also accommodate your wheelchair, welcome your guide dog, and allow you access to all your hotel’s facilities. Depending where you go, you might be disappointed.
In many Western countries, attention to the needs of the disabled has inspired standards based on best practice and legislation to enforce minimum requirements. In Asia, this perspective is less common, but the issue has been the focus of this year’s World Tourism Day under the theme ‘Tourism for All: Promoting Universal Accessibility’. Policy frameworks, capacity building, business strategies, and awareness raising have all been addressed during the week of events which commenced on September 26th in Bangkok.
Hoteliers would be well advised to stay ahead of the curve, because according to a recent MyTravelResearch.com report, up to one in five tourists has a disability – and while a majority of those disabilities are not visible and some are only temporary, this is already a sizeable market. Around 88% of people with a disability take a vacation each year, while in the USA, the Open Doors Organization estimates that US$17.3 billion is spent on travel annually by adults with disabilities. In Australia that figure is around US$8 billion, while around 12% of the European market is dedicated to people with disabilities – and that’s before each of us gets old.
One undisputed fact is that disabilities do not diminish people’s passion for travel. Many focus groups have been conducted with traveling seniors. “The one thing they have in common is that they don’t want to stop traveling,” says Bronwyn White, co-founder of MyTravelResearch.com and author of the report. “They recognize, however, that the way that they travel may need to incrementally change as they age.”
Of course, the major international hotel brands do provide facilities for disabled guests. Peggy Cheng of Marriott Asia Pacific explained that Marriott properties adhere to the legal codes in each host country, and offer such features as wheelchair roll-in showers, grab bars and access ramps in rooms which are designed specifically for physically challenged guests. Indeed, if you choose to book online, the company’s websites give the option of selecting Mobility Accessible rooms or even Hearing Accessible rooms, because it should not be overlooked that disability can take many forms, each of which presents its own challenges.
In Malaysia, Annie Wong of G Hotels described the accommodation available at the G Hotel Gurney and the new G Hotel Kelawai in Penang, listing a range of features that closely match the guidelines of the ADA and the British Standards Institute (BSI): wheelchair accessible doors; lower faucets, towel rails, closet and security peepholes; grab bars; bedside and bathroom panic buttons to summon assistance, and an accessible front desk and café on the premises.
Even so, this may represent only a small step on a long journey. The BSI points out that the UK has had disabled access legislation for around 50 years, beginning with ramps and lifts, and then disabled toilets and widened doors and corridors – but we are still learning how to make improvements, learning what works, and what is still needed. We can design a building with access ramps, but forget what happens when they become wet and slippery. In the case of hotels, we can design a disabled access room and then install a bed which has a luxury mattress topper that raises the overall height just out of range for a wheelchair user. We may forget that the mood lighting in the corridors designed to improve the ambience might pose a whole new danger for the partially sighted.
As Bill Foster, CEO of TravAbility points out, “Accessible Tourism is no longer about building ramps and accessible bathrooms. It is about building products and services for a large and rapidly growing market. This is no longer a niche, but rather, a segment that is approaching 25% of the total tourism spend.”
Standards and regulations are often written with the ‘average’ disabled user in mind, when in reality, every guest’s needs may vary. For this reason, the role of hotel staff cannot be overlooked. It is normal that staff are willing and eager to help, but less common that they are equipped with the knowledge of how to help. Knowing that a verbal description of the surroundings can help a blind guest, or understanding how best to communicate with a hearing impaired customer can raise service standards to a whole new level.
For the hospitality industry to support this growing market, attention to detail is the key, and achieving the standards set out by organizations such as the BSI should be the goal of every hotelier. As the BSI points out, standards are a way of gathering knowledge so that everyone can benefit in the future.
That way, it might not be necessary to commit a felony to be sure of getting an accessible room.