Easy Access: What does "Accessible Accommodation" really mean?
by Bruce Mumford
"It's pretty easy to get in; once you've parachuted onto the well-defined 'X' marking the DLZ (Disabled Landing Zone) and laid down some sort of ramp across the moat. Oh, and just be careful of the crocodiles when doing this- they're a bit hungry at the moment …"
But what does "Accessible Accommodation" really mean?
What's a piece of cake to one person can be an absolute impossibility to another. And let me assure you, until my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) started to get severe, I had no idea myself how important a word 'access' is.
Because it does no one any favours if you advertise being accessible when you're not (and it also leaves you open to legal action - something best avoided), our local Access Committee for Southern Highlands Tourism in NSW has recently compiled an Access Questionnaire. It is a list of questions to be used as a guide by local accommodation providers to help them in letting people know about the accessibility of their business. The list details the relevant sections of Australian Standards. In this article I'm going to outline a few other options that can make a stay for a visitor with access needs that much more pleasant.
Our family has travelled with me in a wheelchair over much of Australia and large parts of the globe and together we've built up quite an understanding of what makes accommodation truly 'accessible'.
The important thing is not just to pay lip service to accessibility, but to seriously consider how you can help your guests with disability.
Doorways are not accessible if blocked with goods
There was a multi-storey hotel in Germany that advertised as accessible, with lift. Only trouble was, the lift wasn't big enough for me in the wheelchair; so we had to go up separately. Not easy and involving some pretty complicated logistics.
Several street crossings in London had a lip for wheelchairs on one side, but when you got across the road - no lip.
Quite a few places we went to stay had lovely spacious rooms and even ramps to get there, but at the door - a step. Which can ruin your day if you're in a wheelchair.
There is actually a tourist office in Prague which has a disability access sign pointing to - a flight of stairs.
So it was no surprise really when I found a lady living in the disability access toilet at Prague Cathedral, complete with a radio and a covered table with a nice vase of flowers. She very kindly let me in; but it felt a bit as though I was having a splash in someone's loungeroom (and fortunately those days are now way back in my past).
In Bruge, a cafe's lift to the toilets was out of action because it was used to store garbage.
But even closer to home the local cinema's disabled toilet used to be very difficult to negotiate, even once you got the key, because it was used as a cleaner's store-room. To their credit, they now have a lift, access to all theatres and a great accessible toilet!
From my travels, I've found a few things in particular stand out:
- Sturdy chairs with arms are most helpful
- Telephones at a reachable height, with a table for writing on
- Circulation space is very important for people in wheelchairs- if you're not certain if a room would work for wheelchairs, the best way to find out is to get in one yourself and see how you go!
- Grab rails in bathrooms are handy for anyone- but for most people with disabilities they're essential. I've come to hate those cheap plastic towel rails that are just made to be snapped when you grab them. Not only useless but also very dangerous.
- Accessible showers with no hob(?) to step over and soft, non-slip floors are very important
- A mirror at wheelchair height in the bathroom is great (surprisingly, even though some of us may look like The Elephant Man, we like to try and look nice)
- Reception needs to be accessible too -consider wheelchair access, seating, counter height
Remember too, that people come with a wide range of disabilities; access doesn't just mean catering for people in wheelchairs. Some people have crutches, or walking frames, or sight or hearing problems.
These modifications are not that expensive, but the financial benefits to your business can be great - as happy visitors spread the word to others and there is a growing network, both formal and informal, spreading information about accessible accommodation. You'll find visitors with disability most loyal - because once we find an accessible place we'll keep coming back - and we'll tell our friends too!
To make a person's stay completely enjoyable, you could also provide information on locally available accessible equipment and attractions:
- What local companies can hire out wheelchairs/ scooters/ walking frames etc? For instance, during a recent stay near Ulladulla in NSW, I was delighted to find a business there which would not only hire out an electric scooter, but actually deliver it to our cabin - and at very reasonable rates too (Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Are there local cycle paths, accessible parks, venues and toilets provided by council?
- Are there accessible tourist attractions nearby?
(The local Tourist Office can usually provide details of these last two)
There's quite a few guides and directories available on the internet in this regard. They just take a bit of time hunting down. To save you a bit of stress here's some that might be useful:
- NICAN or Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA national)
- SCIA Access Requirements Checklists
- Disability Rights (Australian Human Rights Commission)
- IDEAS (for NSW you could also try e-Bility Access Travel or the Independent Living Centre NSW)
- Wheelie Easy (North Qld)
- Disability Standards
- Tourism Western Australia (W.A, but of general use)
And there's also me at email@example.com. I've built up quite a data base and am happy to help as an Accessible Tourism Consultant where needed.
And one thing to keep in mind:
I think of myself as Bruce Mumford - not as someone in a wheelchair. Focus on the person, not the disability.
This article was written for Take A Break to raise awareness amongst accommodation providers listed about the importance of accessibility and to provide them with advice on how to make their businesses more accessible to travellers with disability. Information about the Access Questionnaire can be obtained from the Wingecarribee Shire Access Committee. It's purpose is to assist accommodation services identify the level of access they can offer, encouraging them to "be open and up front about which aspects of their premises are accessible and those which do not meet the standards".
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