New legislation makes hoteliers mindful of guests with disabilities.

It was the mid 1990s and Claredon Robicheau, whose muscular dystrophy had put him in a wheelchair five years earlier, was checking into a motel in Digby, N.S. The motel was wheelchair accessible, the folks at the front desk had assured him. He arrived for a night’s stay expecting nothing less. However, the makeshift plywood plank-ramp bridging the one-foot step up to the room should have been his first clue things weren’t up to snuff. Robicheau pushed on and nudged his chair into the room. The scene deteriorated from there. Robicheau’s ability to get to the bathroom was blocked by the bed. With only 27” separating the bed from the door, his 29” chair would not squeeze past. “It was very upsetting,” says Robicheau, who, as it happens, serves as secretary on the Board of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) in Winnipeg. “And, while we’ve taken some steps since, we’re still not even halfway there.”

Robicheau, who travels regularly, both as a tourist, and in his role with the CCD, feels Canada’s hotel industry has lost sight of an important contingent of its business. He believes by not making efforts to accommodate guests with physical impediments, the hotel trade is losing potential customers. The topic of accessibility is receiving a great deal of attention lately, especially in Ontario where private enterprise is about to endure compliance requirements like it’s never encountered before, just as the new year rolls out.

About 4.4-million Canadians have a disability of one kind or another, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent figures. That represents approximately 15 per cent of the entire population, a fraction mirrored in Ontario’s provincial figures. Topping that, by 2036, the number of seniors in Canada’s most populous province is expected to more than double from 2008 levels to 4.1 million. As the population ages and swells, the number of individuals with disabilities will grow. And so, too, will the demand for accessible accommodation and the inclusive tourism that caters to them.

Taking steps to accommodate people with disabilities is not only a compassionate and caring measure, it’s also a boost to tourism’s bottom line. According to research by the Toronto-based Martin Prosperity Institute, at the Rotman School of Management, if increased accessibility has even a modest impact of bumping tourism by three per cent, it represents a $700-million injection to the system. “At the end of the day,” says Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA), “one of the reasons some [hotels] are ahead of others is because they recognize the business potential as well as the social responsibility.”

True enough, acknowledges Steve Gupta, president and CEO of Toronto-based Easton’s Group of Hotels, but he fears the initiatives in this camp are at risk of being abused. Guests without disabilities wouldn’t welcome a stay in a room that’s set up to accommodate their less-abled cohorts, he believes. Considering the reno comes with a price tag of an additional $10,000 per room or more, only makes Gupta more anxious about the possibility of a government-mandated imperative coming down. And that, he says, is something he sees as excessive. “There are people who don’t require that help, and they don’t like that a room is different from what they’re used to. There’s no question people who are in need have to be helped, but we can’t go overboard.”

Eleven of Gupta’s newest hotels are fully equipped to handle guests with disabilities. It’s possible for customers with disabilities to take a wheelchair right up into the room: the doors are wider, the corridors are broader and the entire facility is outfitted with proper, well-built ramps not made of plywood planking. There’s special-needs parking next to the entrance, and the elevators are spacious enough to accommodate wheelchairs. In 10 per cent of Easton’s new rooms, there’s space for a wheelchair to turn a five-foot circle, and connecting rooms allow for a relative to sleep next door. Additionally, Easton’s offers special training for staff and mandates that at least two people in each facility are able to provide instruction to other staffers on accessibility.

Training is a key concern for parties with an eye on accessibility. According to Tony Pollard, president of the Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada (HAC), “all we need to do is treat all persons equally.” The HAC historically covered accessibility training as part of Access Canada, an accessibility-rating program  launched in the mid 1990s. But, five or six years ago, Access Canada came under scrutiny and was ultimately dismantled when an increasingly complicated situation proved too fractured for national oversight. Suddenly, says Pollard, it became apparent that every province in Canada is different, and the administration of the property laws that govern the business are unique to each.

“There are three territories and 10 provinces in Canada, and I could devote myself full time to figuring it out,” Pollard says. “I’m not trying to minimize the issue. It’s a big, big part of our business. But I always advise people to get in touch with their province directly. And that’s particularly true given what’s happening in Ontario.”

What is happening in Ontario is a show of leadership. Following on from Accessibility for Ontarians with a Disability Act (AODA), passed in 2005, new legislation is pending that demands private enterprise belly up to the bar. While there are several examples of public-sector accessibility legislation in place, Ontario is the first province to tackle the issue in the private sector.

The first move in this area, with a deadline of January 2012, is the service component. In it, the subject of how employees engage with people with disabilities is tackled. Mostly, says OHRMA’s Elenis, these recommendations are a matter of common sense. “There are many ways and means to make people happy, [you can remove] a chair from a restaurant or banquet table to be replaced by a wheelchair,” or increase the print size on menus. Elenis continues, “and snipping a corner off key cards helps a [vision-impaired] person know which way to insert it.” Sometimes, he suggests, “it’s not reinventing the wheel but sharing what everyone else is doing and creating an inventory.”

The second component of the pending legislation covers integrated accessibility standards. Expected to roll out between 2013 and 2016, the guidelines are broken down into principles pertaining to web content and signage (among other things), employment and transportation standards.

The third and probably most anxiety-producing component focuses on the building. All of the physical aspects are covered, including ensuring a hotel has the structural integrity to accomodate people with disabilities. It’s an imperative with no shortage of economic implications attached to it. While various committee meetings have been held on the standard, it’s not been passed yet and a deadline has yet to be set. The entire piece of legislation isn’t expected to become law by at least 2025, given the complexity of each of its three modules.

The structural side of the issue is tricky, explains Elenis, particularly with regard to grandfathering in buildings. The province is not expected to require organizations to retrofit their premises to meet new standards. Once it becomes law, the obligation will only apply to new construction. “There’s not much you can do in some cases,” he shrugs.

But it’s precisely this reality that worries the people on the receiving end the most. “You can create all the codes and laws you want, but if hotels are being grandfathered, there’s no law saying they should become accessible,” laments Robicheau. He says there’s a scarcity of new hotel construction projects across Canada today. “You have 100 year’s [worth] of hotels built during the boom, and now we’re stuck with what’s there. There’s nice hotels near the convention centre that are not new,” complains Robicheau, “and I have to stay three blocks away. In the middle of January, in Ottawa, that can be problematic in terms of transportation.”

Robicheau recommends persons with disabilities make reservations with a property directly, rather than trust a call centre. Listen for evidence of proper jargon, he suggests, and insist on familiarity with the concept of “universal design.” This expectation covers everything from smoke alarms with powerful strobe lights for the hearing impaired to bathroom mirrors set at a height that helps a disabled man shave. Robicheau won’t book a room until he’s confirmed the height of the bed and sink with a resident janitor. “I can’t go on ‘maybe,’” he says. “When you’re flying from Halifax to Vancouver and land at three in the morning and can’t get into the bed, it’s not pretty.”

The motto at the Council of Canadians with Disabilities is “nothing about us without us,” reminds John Rae, 62, and vision impaired, who travels extensively. He’s emphatic that persons with disabilities should weigh-in on vital accessibility decisions. “The hotel industry has to work with us more than they do.”

“If planes, trains and automobiles are becoming more accessible, hotels need to follow suit,” insists Robicheau. “We need a place where we can stay with dignity. Can I brush my teeth in the morning? Can I get to the restaurant without having to go through the kitchen? We went to the moon 43 years ago, but I can’t travel to a city without worry.” 

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