The UK hotel business is thriving, and that’s great news. But when it comes to accessibility, there’s something wrong. Here’s the problem:

·        There are still far too few genuinely accessible hotel rooms in the UK – especially outside London. This creates huge unmet demand among disabled customers, and means the tourism industry is missing out on millions of pounds of business every year.

·        Despite the evidence of demand, hoteliers remain wary of creating accessible accommodation because of fears that a “medicalised” room will put off non-disabled customers, and because of concerns over installation costs.

And there are two key reasons why this matters:

·        Quite simply, it’s not fair: disabled people are missing out on the chances to travel (for work or pleasure) enjoyed by the non-disabled population. As Baroness Thomas told the House of Lords, why should she and other disabled people face constant frustration when simply trying to book hotels that lack adequate facilities to meet their needs?

·        Businesses are missing out on a huge opportunity to attract a whole range of potential clients, meeting the needs of all without diminishing the experience of existing customers.

There is no reason why a well-designed accessible room cannot have look and feel like a luxury upgrade. Rooms designed in the right way can be a ‘room for all’ not just for people in wheelchairs or less able, which could then potentially put off other clients for a perceived fear of ugly and uncomfortable facilities.

We should try to get away from the ‘us and them’ mentality, and instead create beautiful, stylish spaces for all. A creatively and ingeniously designed room will be desirable to all, regardless of their ability. Anyone booked into a room like this should feel that they have been upgraded.

How we got here: The Olympics and after

I’d like to take you on a short journey. It passes through the House of Lords, Whitehall and the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, and affects around 66,000 accommodation businesses in England alone.

It tells a story of frustration and disappointment for millions of people with disabilities, and a great business opportunity being missed.

Back in August 2012, the London Olympics and Paralympics enthralled the world – and brought the UK global acclaim. Organisers had promised the event would be “the most accessible and inclusive Olympics ever”, and hoteliers had been encouraged by the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, to do more to address the shortage of accessible hotel rooms in the capital.

Accessible rooms are difficult to sell to non-disabled customers

After the games, a hotel industry review revealed a depressing conclusion: accessible rooms had proved difficult to sell to non-disabled visitors. They were regarded as too ugly and “medicalised”, and many remained unbooked.

Jump forward to February 2015 and a House of Lords debate led by four disabled peers, including the paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. Baroness Celia Thomas, who uses a wheelchair, reported “thousands of hotels around the country” are breaking basic access requirements laid out in building regulations, but told how some hotel managers told her they “don’t want any of their rooms to look ‘medicalised’ because it puts non-disabled people off”. Many businesses avoided their obligations under the Equality Act and blamed high costs, said Baroness Grey-Thompson, yet in fact “the data show that the cost is not prohibitive and that, in virtually every case, it can be recouped by the new business that is found”.

It’s easier to arrange holidays for disabled people overseas than in Britain

Fast forward two years to August 2014, and accessible rooms were in the headlines again – with a new twist. A government report found a lack of suitable holiday accommodation in Britain was forcing many disabled people in the UK either to holiday abroad or stay at home. The research, by the Department for Work and Pensions, found thousands of customers were being turned away from hotels and self-catering accommodation because there just weren’t enough suitable rooms to meet demand.

Incredibly, travel companies reported it was easier to arrange holidays for disabled people overseas than in Britain. The Disability Holiday Directory, Britain’s biggest disabled holiday company, said the shortage of suitable accommodation meant it couldn’t find space for one fifth of its clients looking to holiday in the UK every year. Mark Harper, Minister for Disabled People, called on the British tourist industry to do better to cater for disabled travellers. With over 11 million people in Britain with a disability – whose combined spending power is over £80 billion – improving hotel accessibility is a “no brainer”, he said.

Demand for accessible accommodation will keep on growing

So there’s an enormous challenge for businesses – and it’s just not going to go away. The demand for accessible accommodation is, quite simply, going to keep on growing. There are over 11 million people with a disability in the UK, and – according to the accessible tourism pressure group Tourism for All – when disabled people go away they’re much more likely to travel with family and companions, stay for longer and spend more money.

Not only that, Britain’s population is ageing, and that too brings new travel needs. There are now well over 11 million people aged 65 or above in the UK, and that’s expected to rise to over 16 million in less than 20 years. By 2040, almost a quarter of people in the UK will be over 65, and the population over 75 will double in the next 30 years – almost one in five Britons alive today will live to be 100. The older generation is growing dramatically – and its accommodation demands will grow too.

Alongside ageing, other trends are affecting our population. Dementia, as is well-documented, is growing: the numbers affected in the UK are set to increase from around 850,000 today to one million by 2025. Obesity, too, is rising: one in four British adults is obese – the highest proportion in Europe. In both cases, there are implications now and in the future for accommodation requirements.

The web and social media are highlighting the best – and worst – accessible accommodation

Review websites such as TripAdvisor are transforming the travel sector, and facilities for disabled travellers are – rightly – now increasingly under the spotlight.

New sites offering the kind of specific, detailed information so important for wheelchair-users and others with disabilities are beginning to spring up.AccessAllRooms.com, founded by elite wheelchair rugby player James Price, offers a clear room grading system and clear details on everything from ramps to door widths, while London-based disabled entrepreneurs Martyn Sibley and Srin Madipalli describe their new listing service Accomable as ‘Airbnb for disabled people’. Tourism for All UK’s openbritain.net offers information and reviews on UK accommodation, andEuan’s Guide, the brainchild of Euan MacDonald (who has motor neurone disease), is a TripAdvisor-style user-friendly website providing reviews and ratings for transport and parking, access, toilets and staff.

All this promises great free exposure for businesses who invest in well-designed accessible accommodation – but no publicity, or bad publicity, for those who get it wrong.

The law demands accessibility now

Not only do all the population trends point one way, the law requires the hospitality sector to ensure services are accessible right now. Section M of the 2010 Building Regulations sets out rules on access to and use of buildings, and the Equality Act requires that hotels and others must make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure disabled people can make use of their facilities. The problem is that, as the House of Lords debate heard, while many in the industry work hard to comply, others do not. As Baroness Grey-Thompson said, “many building projects simply slip through the net because there is not enough time to monitor or people don’t know what they’re looking for”.

Options for businesses

Architects

Architects are great at designing hotels. However, it is not realistic to expect an architect to interpret complex medical and care requirements directly. In addition, there’s simply no need to use an architect to design a disabled bathroom. It’s far better to have at your disposal the experience of a professional that really understand the products – and the requirements of the people who will use them.

Interior designers

Interior designers have important specialist skills, but their priority will never be accessibility, and they are unlikely to have an understanding of the real needs of people with disabilities – that’s simply not their job. They’re also very unlikely to have a comprehensive knowledge of specialist products and equipment, so could end up creating “accessible” facilities that just aren’t fit for purpose, wasting your money.

Housing occupational therapists

Housing occupational therapists (OTs) assess the needs of disabled people and work out how to meet those needs in their home environment.

Housing OTs have all the real, hands-on expertise companies need to ensure their facilities genuinely meet the needs of disabled people and their carers. They understand the clients, and they know the legal access and equality requirements inside out. That means that, unlike designers and most architects, they can give companies precisely the guidance they need on how to comply with the rules.

But – again, unlike architects – they also go far beyond tick-box knowledge, because their experience working with disabled people has shown them exactly what’s really needed for true accessibility.

Many housing OTs are also manual handling experts, constantly developing and deepening their understanding of how people move. That first-hand knowledge means they are perfectly placed to judge which equipment simply doesn’t work and is a waste of money, and which may even be potentially harmful.

The same direct experience means they understand the needs of carers, appreciating too-often forgotten issues such as how much space they need to do their job.

Most housing OTs ensure they maintain the most up-to-date and practical knowledge of the equipment companies might want to install, allowing them to judge accurately what’s worth spending on and what is not. Many know where to source stylish products that won’t cost the earth and, crucially, won’t look medicalised. It’s an approach that is not only efficient but will save companies money – mistakes can damage not only a company’s balance sheet but also its reputation.

Housing OTs will often also supervise installation, because here too lack of knowledge and experience can lead to expensive mistakes. Rails or furniture installed at incorrect heights, for example, may be useless in practice, no matter what their quality.

As well as overseeing refits to make existing facilities accessible, housing OTs can advise on new developments, including not only hotels but also retirement properties. Here they work with architects to ensure rooms are designed appropriately from the outset. Fixing mistakes on paper ahead of a build is so much cheaper and more efficient than trying to amend 50 rooms once a building is finished. This approach can spare companies the potential brand damage of inadequate rooms – and transform a potential negative into a hugely positive promotional tool to boost business.

Conclusions

I started this article with a story – the tale of the last few years and a clash between unmet demand for accessible accommodation and business owners’ concerns that trying to meet it could be expensive and put off existing customers. As the House of Lords heard, disabled people can’t get the services they need, the law to improve things is working only inconsistently, and hoteliers worry about “medicalisation”.

All the data shows that our ageing population will increasingly need accessible accommodation. Yet, as of last year, only 427 accommodation businesses out of more than 66,000 in England had joined Visit England’s national scheme to “develop and promote their accessibility for disabled travellers”.

Those who have taken that step are finding their investment recognised on social media, as disabled travellers positively review their facilities. That can only lead to more business.

There is a huge opportunity waiting for those who want to change – and to do so with care, effectiveness and for the right price.

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