The Josie Hotel in Rossland, B.C. lists more than two dozen accessible features for its disabled guests on its website. Many are required by building codes as well as the Accessible Canada Act, but many are available because it simply makes sense.
“Hotels have always welcomed people from different mosaics, different walks of life with different abilities,” says David Curell, the hotel’s general manager. “Part of our job in the hospitality business is to welcome everyone.”
Accessibility standards — equitable, barrier-free access — have been in place in Canada for decades for the more than six million Canadians 15 and older who have a disability. Ontario’s building code mandates that at least 10 per cent of hotel rooms be barrier-free for guests with physical challenges, meaning they must be able to reach everything in the room and have enough space, including in the bathroom, to manoeuver mobility devices.
“Ontario was the first jurisdiction to pass legislation, back in 2005, to ensure accessibility features are very much in the communities and the businesses, including hospitality,” says Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA). “It’s not just about the building code, it’s about customer service, which is who we are.”
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) notes that some guests may need other features, such as a phone amplifier, visual alarm, bed shaker, or strobe connected to the doorbell that alerts the hard of hearing guest there’s someone at the door. Written materials should be provided in either larger font, Braille, or staff should be ready to read the document, whether it’s a menu, information about local attractions or safety instructions in case of emergency.
Over and above that, the use of voice-activated technology, such as Amazon Echo and Google Nest, is becoming more common in hotels. “So, if you’re in bed and you want to adjust the temperature [you can do that] without trying to manoeuver in the dark,” says Apoorva Gandhi, senior vice-president, Multicultural Affairs, Social Impact and Business Councils for Marriott. He also points to the company’s BonVoy app, which allows guests to text requests such as room service or late check-out.
In addition, most hotels must conform to the global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that ensures information is more accessible via text, images and sounds.
The Josie takes access a step further by offering accessible outdoor activities, including wheelchair-friendly trails through old-growth forest in the summer, and adaptive snow sports equipment in winter at Red Mountain with lessons for people with physical, behavioural and cognitive disabilities.
Hoteliers are required to train their staff on how to interact and communicate with guests who have particular challenges, and to relay special features of the property that will accommodate their needs. They should also be prepared to accompany visually impaired guests to their room. “Part of [our] training is to always ask the guest if they would like assistance, if they would like someone to go up to the room with them,” says Curell.
Other training aspects include what areas of a wheelchair it’s appropriate to touch, to come out from behind the counter and pass materials directly to the guest, and to use respectful people-first language (i.e., being aware of determining what a person has, not who a person is).
Gandhi says a friend of his who is deaf gets annoyed when staff talk to his interpreter instead of to him. “He’s thinking, ‘I’m the one paying for this, why aren’t you looking at me?’ The person doesn’t mean to be rude, he just needs to be trained.”
Gandhi points to the quote used by people within the disabilities community that says, “Nothing about us without us,” meaning if you’re going to help us, let us be part of it. As a result, the non-profit Disability: IN, of which he is a board member, invited people with all manner of disabilities to Marriott’s test room called “the room for all,” listened to what they most want in a hotel room, and worked with their suppliers and design team to take into account such aspects as sight lines for little people or those using wheelchairs, bed and toilet height, markers to distinguish shampoo and conditioner, and heaviness of entry doors.
“Imagine trying to [juggle] your key card, bags and your wheelchair while pushing open a very heavy door,” says Gandhi. “And in some cases, they’re very heavy for security reasons. It can be hard to manoeuvre, but also quite dangerous.” So accessible rooms often have doors that are easier to open.
The Josie has three dedicated rooms for guests with ability challenges, says Curell. “They’re very well laid-out, they can accommodate a [wheel]chair. We also have a studio suite, which has a separate living space and the bathroom is quite a bit larger, with a separate soaker tub and roll-in shower.”
While many of these special rooms and facilities are used only sporadically — the Josie’s are occupied only every couple of weeks — that will surely change. “The disability market, regretfully, is growing,” says Elenis. “The baby boomers are getting older and many are retired; it’s a huge demographic that will need services that legislation like the AODA [mandates]. We as an industry look at it two ways: first, it’s the ethical thing to do; and second, it’s big business. People with disabilities don’t stay home, they travel, and this customer base will grow more and more. We need to be ready for that.”
By Robin Roberts