How accessible is your property?

There was a time when those in the Canadian hospitality industry looked at their disabled guests as a niche market. A small slice of the population that could be catered to, or worse, ‘dealt with’, if need be. Thankfully, there are positive steps being taken throughout the hotel business that are fundamentally changing the way disabled guests access the services and amenities provided in today’s top properties.

In fact, recent Statistics Canada numbers put the ‘niche market’ claim into serious question. According to that agency, approximately 4.4 million people in Canada have disabilities, representing 14.3 per cent of the population. Regionally, there can be an even greater case made for the inclusion of an accessibility plan into any hotel design. In Ontario — where there are significant changes coming to regulations* — the percentage is even higher than the national average, currently sitting at 15.5 per cent or 1.85 million people.

What’s more, given that the Canadian population is an aging one, the demand for accessible properties is going to increase during the next decade.  In fact, while disabled people represent 14.3 per cent of the population, StatsCan says 43.4 per cent of those over 65 are disabled. With a large chunk of the massive baby boomer generation fast approaching that age bracket, it would be a serious detriment to properties if they were unable to host these notoriously prodigious travellers.

Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada, feels that catering to a disabled guest is simply good business. “Why wouldn’t you want a disabled guest to choose your property?” he asks. “They often travel at non-peak times and often with another person. This is someone I want in my hotel.”

In order to ensure your facility is up to snuff, Pollard says there are a number of resources available. “We’ve had a program called Access Canada since 1995,” he says, noting it has been continuously updated to stay ahead of government regulations. “The training component is particularly strong, and the building standards presented on the website are very good if you view them as guidelines. You do have to be sure to check with your local authorities and municipal codes though.”

Hoteliers in Vancouver scrambling to get up to speed in time for the Olympic and Paralympic games can access that resource, too, but on a more local level, the Olympic spirit has also brought with it some much needed initiatives. Mike Prescott is the manager of accessible tourism, with an organization called 2010 Legacies, and he says there’s a great deal of motivation across the province to ensure businesses are prepared to host the world in less than a year. “The games were a major catalyst for this program,” he says. “People were obviously talking about this before, but hosting the games brought with it the business case to dig a little deeper and find out what can be done. It’s also given us the opportunity to work collaboratively with tourism and advocacy groups to accomplish more than could have been done individually.”

According to Prescott, the accessibility side of the legacies program has been extremely successful, but there is still some work to be done. “We developed a tool to assess the overall level of accessibility for a number of factors, including mobility, hearing and vision,” he says, adding that to date, some 2,500 businesses have participated, including approximately 600 hotels. “The properties that are assessed receive a rating based on their performance, including a report outlining how they did and how they can improve. The program covers everything from the physical bricks and mortar stuff like parking facilities, pathways, the grade of ramps, the entrance, access to the restaurant, as well as looking at questions like: Can I get to my room; Can I get around my suite and into the bathroom?”

Prescott says most properties did well in terms of being able to get a disabled athlete or spectator into their lobbies and rooms, but there were some areas that were often overlooked. “One area where we saw significant issues was emergency alarms,” he says. According to Prescott, many businesses rely on an auditory cue in case of an emergency, something that would be easily missed by anyone with an auditory impairment. Instead, Prescott and others say alarm systems need to come equipped with visual cues as well. “A lot of hotel properties worry about getting people in the door and are not always as worried about getting them out,” he says.

Of course, catering to a guest with a disability is about a lot more than having grab-bars and ramps. Training your staff to be mindful of the special needs and requirements of people with far-ranging disabilities is critical to everyone’s comfort. “Specialty training is very valuable,” says David Zaltman, CEO of Skyline Boutique Hotels and Resorts. “It can be uncomfortable for both the guest and the associate the first time they encounter a sight-impaired guest, for example, if not properly trained. Having said that, it is important to train [staff] based on individual needs and assistance requirements and to never lump individuals into categories. Each guest will require specific individualized services,” he says.

Terry Mundell, president of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association, agrees. “Training is extremely important and has to be ongoing,” he says. “As staff changes over, you need to make sure that those in the disabled community get the service needed.” Mundell, who’s organization promotes its own ‘hospitality checklist’ available on its website, says serving the disabled community with care and competence is vital to running a successful business. “Customer service wins the day time and time again,” he says. “You have to be educated, well trained and understand your customer in any community.”

A similar but separate issue that could set your property apart from the competition is catering to a temporarily disabled person or someone who is using your facility to convalesce after surgery. However, while it is easy to sell yourself as a recovery oasis, it can, and does come with unique challenges. Whereas a person who has handled a wheelchair or lived with vision impairment for years has likely developed certain strategies, a patient fresh out of surgery might require you to play by a different set of rules, as they are bound to be unfamiliar with their circumstances.

“The Pantages Hotel, Toronto Centre, has facilitated the perfect atmosphere to recover from surgeries, day surgeries and family accommodations for those caring for critical care patients,” says Zaltman. “Recovery from Lasik eye surgery seems to be a new trend and we at the hotel provide the perfect atmosphere in order to recover in style.”

The location of the Pantages Hotel certainly helps sell the property to those who need to be in close contact with the nearby hospital, but Zaltman says it is the service that truly makes the difference. “In our centralized location, directly across from St. Michael’s Hospital, we come across many varied situations,” he says. “Guests with eye (and other) surgeries can all but check in right from the floor of the hospital discharge area.” In fact, he says the hotel often has a bell person with a cart meeting guests inside the hospital’s waiting area. “We take the fear out of recovery and allow the exact required service level and attention desired.”

Without a doubt, serving disabled guests comes with  unique demands and structural requirements. But with the help of readily available resources and a commitment to customer service, anything is possible. Given the governmental groundswell for accessibility reform, it could very well be a matter of getting with the program on your own terms now or simply being forced to later.


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