There is room for improvement in the ways hotels, guesthouses and other holiday accommodation can become more welcoming for all guests
You’ve seen “accessible” bedrooms and bathrooms. But how accessible are they really?
What is the reality of holidaying in Ireland for people with disabilities, and what changes could help make staycations more accessible for all?
“Just ask,” says Phil Quinlan. “The biggest thing people can do is just ask. Do you need a hand? What can I do for you? Do you need anything extra? It shouldn’t be a problem... but when people see you coming in, the head goes down — instead of the old Irish welcome of a big dirty smile and ‘How’s it going?’ The staff should be tuned in.”
Phil suffered a brain injury playing football as a 15-year-old, has mobility and balance issues, and sometimes uses a powered wheelchair. His suggestions range from placing accessible rooms close to lifts to ensuring there is ample space to manoeuvre chairs around the bed, and installing grab rails and non-slip tiles in pool areas.
He describes a recent hotel that got it right: “The concierge offered his shoulder to help balance me and walked me right to the poolside. He then stopped me bending down and undid my sandals for me! I was treated like a king and didn’t feel like I was a handicapped burden for once... it was just incredible.”
“What does accessibility mean?” asks Clare Cassidy, who lives in Ennis, Co Clare. After working for years as a chef, Clare lost her sight several years ago. She also says change should start “from the get-go... just simply teaching staff what the words mean. They need to understand the lingo. ‘Accessibility’ is not an Irish word. It’s universal.”
Her suggestions range from having shampoo and conditioner in different-sized or different-shaped bottles, to the use of braille or bigger writing, along with proper lighting and thought when it comes to steps. In a recent “accessible room”, for instance, she nearly fell over a step up into the bathroom. “That’s what you’re dealing with.”
“When you walk into a restaurant or bar, it’s about saying, ‘What can I do for you?’” she adds. “Treat the person with 100pc dignity. Don’t go to pull or push them or speak to them in a manner that you wouldn’t like. Take a step back and think, ‘If this was me, how would I like to be treated?’”
Clare describes a positive experience in a pub she enjoys returning to. “The obstacle in my way is darkness. Then I’m met by extra barriers because of Covid. But I am greeted by a friendly voice — Shane, the barman. ‘Clare, how’s it going?’ he’ll say. ‘It’s me, Shane. Stay where you are; I’ll be over to you in a minute.’” Staff also offer to read the menu and guide her to the bathrooms.
According to the 2016 Census, about one in seven people living in Ireland, or 643,000 people, have some form of disability. They range from physical disabilities to vision or hearing impairment, learning disabilities and mental health issues.
The Irish Hotels Federation says improving accessibility for these guests “is essential to provide memorable experiences firstly, but it can also assist in the spread of tourism around the country”. It says it and its members are looking at how to enhance their offering, from training workshops to the built environment.
But clearly there is work to be done. “For travellers with disabilities, Ireland is a mixed bag,” as Frommer’s, the well-known international travel guide, puts it.
“The trouble with listing accessible hotels is, who deems them accessible?” says Katie Bourke of Sligo-based company Adaptable Solutions. She’s a mum and manual wheelchair user. People often lump “accessibility” into a single category, Katie says, “when, in fact, the needs are as varied and diverse as disabled people themselves”.
For manual wheelchair users like herself, she explains, space to move is essential, as is a roll-in shower. “But along with that, you need something safe to sit on in the shower (sitting in a wet wheelchair for the day does not appeal). This is the ‘big’ stuff that is often provided in one or maybe two rooms of any hotel... with a lovely view of the car park, as most are located on the ground floor for safety purposes. The small stuff like accessible wardrobe rails, reachable towels, or a fridge that I can access without sitting on the floor are mostly forgotten.”
It can be hard to find accessible adjoining rooms in hotels, she adds, and hotels with great access can also be expensive. Her family usually stays in holiday homes, where she tends to sacrifice accessibility for the kids’ sake. “If I find a bungalow, I actually celebrate... it’s quite sad!”
“Come over!” Phil says, encouraging people to learn by chatting with people who have disabilities. “My kids are totally OK with it. My seven-year-old backs up to me when I get out of the car like a reversing truck with the beep-beep-beep sound on. ‘Right, Daddy, grab onto my neck!’ I use him as balance to walk any distance.”
Other practical suggestions made by Phil, Clare, Katie and others range from ramps and rails for safer pool access to text or WhatsApp options for room service, having listings of local accessible restaurants and transport available to guests, leaving space for hoists under beds, and updating websites to include dedicated accessibility pages, photos of bathrooms and toilets, and to make them accessible to people using screen readers (NCBI, the national sight loss agency, offers a service to help companies audit and improve website accessibility).
One way to usher in a culture change, Katie suggests, is to think of “universal access” — making accessible rooms and facilities the norm and not the exception.
“There is literally no reason an able-bodied family couldn’t use an accessible house, but there are loads of reasons a disabled person couldn’t use an inaccessible one,” she explains. “So why not make the vast majority accessible, rather than the other way round?”
Worldwide, around one billion people have a disability, the World Tourism Organisation says. It has announced the first global standard for accessible tourism (ISO 21902), calling on businesses to “build back better” and become more accessible as they recover.
Instagram account @thestruggleiswheel documents Mike and Leona Hennessy’s accessible adventures around Ireland.
disabledfriendlyhotels.com includes tips and a list of over 50 hotels compiled by Philip Quinlan of Spinal Injuries Ireland (spinalinjuries.ie).
Mobility Mojo (mobilitymojo.com) and Universal Access (universalaccess.ie) are two Irish companies offering accessibility advice and solutions.
The European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) is at accessibletourism.org.