Chelsea Mohler, a visually impaired 29-year-old from Toronto, has first-hand knowledge of how hotel operators are (or aren’t) catering to guests’ special needs. At one hotel, signs were reproduced in braille, accessible rooms were close to the lobby and discreet customer service was available. At another, there were no appropriate accommodations and staff made Mohler feel like it was a bother to help her find her way in an unfamiliar environment. “That was a truly bad experience,” she says.

We often picture disabled people in wheelchairs or suffering from a visible infirmity, but disabilities can also be invisible to the untrained eye, and provincial human rights codes include broad classifications for the term. The word disability is defined as a visual impairment, deafness or difficulty hearing, in addition to intellectual, learning, developmental and mental-health challenges. Physical limitations caused by old age can be a disability, too. And, given the growing number of elderly Canadians, it’s important to accommodate this demographic.

“The challenge for hotels is that there’s such a range of disabilities,” says Nick Francis, director of Rooms at the Hyatt Regency Calgary. That said, Hyatt has many accommodations for the disabled, including audible fire-notification systems, the posting of braille in elevators and guestrooms, TDD systems (telecommunications device for the deaf), vibrating telephones, chairlifts in pools and sonic-alert radios. Ten of the Hyatt’s 355 rooms are designated accessible and feature wider doors, lower peepholes, roll-in showers, bathtub benches and grab bars, raised toilet seats with grab bars as well as wheelchair-accessible sinks, vanities and towel racks.

An estimated 3.8-million Canadian adults (13.7 per cent) reported being limited in their daily activities by a disability in 2012, according to Statistics Canada. For most hotels, accommodating this population begins with formulating multi-year accessibility plans, says Fatima Finnegan, director of Corporate Marketing and Business Development at the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA) in Mississauga, Ont. Adherent customer-service policies and procedures top the list. Websites may be redesigned with contrasting colours, larger font sizes and audio options for visually impaired guests to have text read to them. Feedback forms are also becoming similarly more accessible.

Adjusting the physical space is another key step to creating an accessible hotel, but standardized parameters haven’t been established. New builds and hotels undergoing renovations can use municipal building codes as a guide, but these generally only apply to new construction. So, the task can seem daunting. “Expectations around accessible entryways, counter heights and that kind of thing are what’s really frightening people, because they think they have to spend a ton of money changing their buildings,” Finnegan notes.

Cost may be a concern, but there is also a business case for creating a more accessible hotel. “Hoteliers are seeing the disabled community as an opportunity to welcome a new sector of business,” says Finnegan. Where one sales manager might target the leisure market and another the sports market, some are assigned to attract the disabled community. “When persons with disabilities are going out with their families, they’re the ones who decide where to go, because they’re the ones the family members want to accommodate,” says Finnegan.

Ann Hoy, assistant deputy minister of the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, based in Toronto, sees value in making that investment. Approximately one in seven people have a disability in Ontario, a number that’s expected to increase to approximately one in five in the next 20 years as the population ages, according to the Richmond, B.C.-based Rick Hansen Foundation. “Think of how that market is growing,” says Hoy. “Accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes economic sense.”
Once all the standards are in effect, universal accessibility could attract up to $1.6 billion in new spending within Ontario’s tourism sector, according to research conducted by the Martin Prosperity Institute, a division of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Meanwhile, a 390-room Residence Inn is under construction in Calgary, part of a province that has no accessibility mandates. The hotel’s sales-and-marketing team is therefore determining how to make the property accessible at a reasonable cost. “They’re working on how many rooms will be accessible and to what extent,” says Catherine Berardi, director of Design at Vancouver-based SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts, which manages the Calgary property. “If we knew we could capture the right volume of business annually to justify doing more than is expected, we would. If there are disabled guests who might stay in our hotels [if they’re made more accessible], that’s a capture for us.”

But accommodating this population isn’t a priority in the hotel trade, admits Berardi. Although each province has a code requirement for accessibility, there’s no cross-country alignment. Access Canada is an overarching accessibility document, but it’s just guidelines, she notes. “Until governments mandate something, it doesn’t get embraced by industry. It’s simply more expensive to build an accessible hotel.”

The bulk of expenses in an accessible guestroom are in the bathroom, says Berardi. The room has to be larger, the placement of the fixtures needs to be adjusted to accommodate a wheelchair and gravity-driven mechanical systems such as the sink and toilet need retrofits. Furthermore, hoteliers don’t want accessible rooms to be less appealing to able-bodied guests. Hotels shouldn’t sacrifice style or design for this aspect of practicality, Berardi says. “A hotel room has to [appeal to] everyone.”

Conversely, ORHMA’s Finnegan sees accessibility as a natural fit for hotels. “Whether someone wants a foam or a feather pillow, whether they want no salt or extra pepper, whether they need a room near an elevator or a bathroom with handlebars, accommodation is what we do,” she says. At least, “it should be,” says visually impaired Mohler, who continues to be hopeful about the hospitality industry’s evolving practice of accommodating disabled guests.

Volume 27, Number 2

Written By: Laura Pratt


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