According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, one in five (22 per cent) of the Canadian population aged 15 years and older has one or more disabilities and, with the country’s aging population, this number is only expected to grow.

Given these numbers, as well as recent and upcoming accessibility legislation, it’s clear the hotel industry can’t afford to ignore accessibility issues within their facilities.

“We’re all recognizing the need to alter rooms, expand services and make an extra effort to reduce these barriers and increase accessibility,” agrees Tracy Ford, director of Public Relations, Chelsea Hotel, Toronto.

When many think of accessible spaces, their first thought tends to be creating accessibility for those with physical disabilities. However, this is only one piece of the puzzle, as people with a wide range of disabilities are impacted by built environments such as hotels.

But, as Brad McCannell, VP of Access and Inclusion with the B.C.-based Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF), points out, meeting building codes and current legislation is not enough to ensure what he terms “meaningful access.” “If you’re building to code, you’re missing a lot of your market,” he explains. “The nature of codes is it takes so long to change them, so they’re always behind the need.”

Plus, McCannell points out, wheelchair accessibility has been a primary focus of building codes, likely due to the highly visible nature of these disabilities and their related barriers. In addition to mobility, sight, hearing, dexterity and “invisible” disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities and mental-health issues, must also be considered.

A fact not lost on the Chelsea Hotel, Toronto, which implemented the Closing the GAP (Guest Accessibility Package) program, designed by Accessibility Professionals of Ontario (APO), in 2015. The comprehensive packages — made available in a variety of accessible formats — provide information on emergency procedures, available assistive devices, hotel amenities, restaurant and room-service menus and telephone directories, as well as instructions for operating equipment such as televisions, telephones and fitness equipment. “[The packages] also speak to the surrounding area — transportation, restaurants and attractions — and all the different [options] that provide true accessibility to our guests,” says Ford.

And, in response to the increasing need for Autism awareness, the Chelsea Hotel, APO and Kerry’s Place Autism Services collaborated to develop the first Guests with Autism Comfort Package, which includes social scripts to help with the understanding of the hotel and its amenities, as well as “Fidget Kits” designed to address the sensory issues that affect some individuals with Autism.

“The whole idea is we want all our guests to have a wonderful stay with us,” says Ford.

Recognizing a need within the market, RHF created the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) program, which rates and certifies built environments such as offices, hotels and public spaces.

“We looked at what LEED was able to do with sustainability…professionalizing it by creating LEED professionals,” explains McCannell. “The RHFAC was designed to create skilled professionals in the field that industry can rely on; that a hotel manager can phone up and know they’re getting current information — national standards, the right approach for all people with disabilities.

The program is comprised of trained professionals and a 400-point site-rating system that spans eight categories.

“We’re not the code police,” McCannell stresses. “We’re here to create opportunities for you as you look down the road. We see the RHFAC as a long-term planning tool…it’s designed to help industry understand the real needs of the community.”

However, as McCannell points out, hotels don’t necessarily need to take an ‘all-things-for-all-people’ approach. “You may have a place that’s outstanding for people with vision loss, [but] not so great for wheelchair [users]. Instead of running from that, embrace it,” he explains. “The problem with access is it’s different things to different people.”

And, while tackling the many barriers to accessibility that can exist in a hotel may seem a daunting task, taking small steps can make a huge impact. “The biggest barrier to people with disabilities — by a mile — is the attitudinal problem,” explains McCannell. “The biggest single thing a hotel can do is disability-awareness training — especially for managers.”

Further highlighting the value of universal design, McCannell notes many older adults and seniors don’t see themselves as disabled and don’t want to be labelled as such. So, the properties that will be successful within this market “will be [those] who’ve installed a universal package of some kind — it’s not labelling them as disabled, it’s not making them feel they need special care and special service.”

“And that group won’t complain to you, they’ll just go somewhere else,” he adds. “If universal design/accessible design is done properly, it’s invisible and it’s beautiful.”


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