On The Side of Dignity – How to Accommodate the Disabled

By: Joanne Sasvari

Tova Sherman knows two important and somewhat counterintuitive things: One is that most of us have a built-in bias against people with disabilities; the other is that most of us will have to deal with a disability at some point in our lives.

That’s why, “You’ve got to err on the side of dignity.” says the CEO of the reachAbility Association, a Halifax-based organization that provides supportive and accessible programs for people facing barriers,

This presents challenges and opportunities alike for hotels, motels, and resorts, whose mission is hospitality, but whose properties may not be built for accommodating the disabled—and whose staff may not be trained to do so, either.

Those that create truly inclusive environments can reap huge benefits. “From the stockholders to the receptionist, everyone is benefiting from diversity,” Sherman says. “Most business leaders know it. It’s a win-win-win.”

Inclusive to All

Statistics Canada estimates that more than 6.2 million Canadians aged 15 years and over—almost 22% of the population—live with some form of disability. And those disabilities are not always obvious. Mobility is only one of the top 10 issues identified by the Canadian Survey on Disability; the rest are: seeing, hearing, flexibility, dexterity, pain-related, learning, developmental, mental-health related, and memory.

That’s why new building codes include features such as lever door handles, brighter lighting, and wider doorways. But for older properties looking to improve their accessibility, there’s the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC), which has created a six-step national rating system to measure and certify a building’s level of accessibility for persons with vision, hearing, and mobility disabilities.

That is where the Inn at Laurel Point turned when they underwent their recent renovation.

“We want to be as open and inclusive to as many people as possible,” says Brooke Harris, the inn’s director of sales and marketing. “It was quite clear for a 1970s build; we had some upgrades to do. The hotel has really stepped up its game in that regard.”

The original scope of the project was to improve the front entrance. They replaced the original stairs with ramps and sloped curbs that are “easy to use if you’re using a wheelchair or walker.” The also installed semi-automatic doors that can be operated remotely and opened up the lobby area. It is now a bright, serene, spacious, and calming entry to the property.

But the bigger project was creating fully accessible, RHFAC-certified washrooms in two guest rooms in the Arthur Erickson wing. “We’d actually completed our lobby renewal and felt we needed to add this on,” Harris explains.

The inn’s team completely gutted the rooms, then retrofitted them with, among other features: improved lighting; grab handles; roll-in showers with hand-held faucets and fold-down seats; sinks, toilets and furniture adjusted to an accessible height; and low-resistance door closures.

The rooms have been well used since they were completed a year ago, Harris says. Even better, they make it easy to accommodate guests gracefully.

“There is a lot of pride. That control and independence is taken from you. You just want to blend in,” Harris says. “You need just a little extra support, right?”

A Long Way to Go

But the process isn’t always so seamless. Social media is rife with horror stories of disabled travellers frustrated by the difficulties of booking accessible rooms, by staff who don’t know a property’s accessible features, and by too often discovering, once they arrive, that the rooms they booked are unavailable or not quite as promised.

And that is in spite of the American Disabilities Act, a landmark 1990 law designed to prevent discrimination against disabled people. It is considered the strongest such law in the world, yet three decades later, many businesses still don’t comply. Meanwhile, on this side of the border, the Accessible Canada Act only became law in 2019.

Still, there are some positive developments. Marriott International, which claims to lead the global hospitality industry with its commitment to diversity, inclusion and accessibility, has partnered with eSSENTIAL Accessibility to offer a free assistive technology app to help people with disabilities navigate the web. Given that the hotel chain owns more than 3,800 properties around the world, this could have a huge impact.

Ask Sherman, though, and there is a long way to go.

Invisible Barriers

“The challenges are easy to talk about because it’s really one challenge,” she says. “There’s a level of bias around disability.”

That bias comes from our “sources of disability learning,” such as movies of the week and sensational news stories, which often highlight the bizarre and negative. Still, she adds, “I believe there is a genuine desire to be inclusive.”

For hotels, this can mean not just making inclusivity part of the core mission values but following through with actions that can range from hiring more people with disabilities to installing wheelchair ramps and accessible washrooms.

“If you have a physical disability, you’re rocking the house,” Sherman says. It’s when people can’t see the disability that problems arise. “They’re not addressing the attitude issue.”

Her mother, for instance, uses a voice box similar to the one Stephen Hawking used, which can make her hard to understand. “People will often pretend to understand her, but by pretending, what it really means is that what she says doesn’t matter as much as their comfort. It’s taking away her dignity.”

While bias can be changed over time through education, Sherman says, “What we can do right now is to be curious. It’s OK to be curious if it’s genuine.”

For instance: Even before a guest arrives, the confirmation letter can invite guests to make any requests. At check-in, trained staff can continue the conversation, asking what a guest needs to be comfortable and perhaps offering a quiet place without distractions for those with anxiety, hearing impairment, or speaking challenges.

Most importantly, Sherman says, just ask: “Is there anything else we can do? You don’t have to have all the answers.”

After all, she explains, “There’s no better person to ask how we can help than the people who are living with it. People don’t come with instructions. It’s a simple step.”

10 Ways to Remove Barriers

Here are just a few features that can help accommodate guests with disabilities.

1. Handicapped parking near the entrance to the property, with ramps, sloping curbs, and automatic doors.
2. Check-in staff trained to answer (and ask) questions; a quiet place to check in for those who need it.
3. Good lighting and colour contrast for the visually impaired, and strobe lights for fire alarms to alert the hearing impaired.
4. Accessible guest rooms (and bathrooms) located on the first floor and/or elevators designed to accommodate wheelchairs.
5. Wider hallways and doorways; doors with lever-style handles.
6. Open-frame beds that can accommodate transfer lifts or hoists.
7. Roll-in showers with seats, and grab bars for shower and toilet.
8. Height-adjusted toilet, sink, closet rods, soap dispensers, light switches and power outlets.
9. A written guarantee that a requested accessible room will be available, and if it isn’t, a willingness to help the guest find one that is—even at another property.
10. Staff trained to be helpful, understanding, and kind.