Special Report: Access All Areas

Special Report: Access All Areas
Director of Direct Access, Steven Mifsud
Published: 8 August 2019 - 12:45 p.m.
By: Mahak Manan

Hospitality is an experience that is enjoyed by different people from across the globe - be it any nationality, market segment or background. The vast variety of hotel brands available in the market today ensures there is something for everyone. One growing market segment that hotels in the region have not fully tapped into is accessible tourism. This market segment enables people with access requirements or people of determination, to function independently when travelling. Worldwide, the accessible tourism market includes 1.3 billion people. When considering friends and family, that number increases to a market of 2.2 billion people with US $8 trillion in annual disposable income.

Accessible tourism is not a niche market, according to Steven Mifsud, managing director and NRAC access consultant at Direct Access, an advisory organisation for improving accessibility for people of determination. Direct Access works alongside architectural and construction firms to reviews and advice on plans avoiding retrofitting later down the line. For established buildings the company’s access audits review the current state of a building in line with local disability access legislation and relevant international standards.

We asked Mifsud whether hotels in the region are built keeping mobility of people of determination in mind and he says there is no consistency in hotel designs which is a huge challenge, not only for people of determination, but for those travelling with them too. “Due to the young age of the Dubai Universal Design Code, many sites have not been built with accessibility in mind from the offset,” Mifsud says. “This doesn’t necessarily apply to just hotels but buildings and applications of all kinds.

Currently there is a mix of accessibility with no consistency, for example hotels built by American Architects have been designed with the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) in mind which is a considerably dated document.” While architects are great at creating inspiring structures, they lack the experience to interpret how to incorporate building regulations around accessibility, Mifsud explains.

A building should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population, but a fundamental condition of good design. There are a number of ways that hotel design can be better for people of determination, and consistency is an important factor. “Take the example of tactile paving, a textured floor surface which enables people who have a vision impairment to be forewarned that there is an obstacle ahead. This feature differs from emirate to emirate in the case of the United Arab Emirates, which can be problematic. We hope that the DUDC will form the basis of a consistent standard throughout the region,” Mifsud explains.

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Hotels in the region also lack consistency in the way toilet facilities are laid out. A good practice bathroom layout can be found in the DUDC, however, previously the majority of accessible toilets have been laid out to ADA requirements or other international standards. This means that every toilet is laid out differently and people with severe mobility issues require a consistent way of using the facilities. Differing facilities in every area affects confidence, according to Mifsud. There are also no set accessible bedrooms as previously, there was no legal requirement to provide them.

This goes beyond just physical structures but also in the way hotels are furnished. An example is the lack of dropped counters for wheelchair users although it is a requirement in the DUDC. Having a lowered counter ensures that wheelchair users are able to visit and speak to customer services on a comfortable level. It can be degrading for a wheelchair user or person of short stature to look upwards or be unable to see across the height of a counter according to the managing director.

Hotels in Dubai also use flooring with an excessive shine. This can make people with impaired vision extremely apprehensive as it could appear to be a wet and slippery floor, “In new builds we always recommend that flooring has a matte finish rather than a shiny or glossy finish,” Mifsud says.

Additionally, there is a mix in the way accessible parking spaces are marked out, causing potential confusion. Consistency is critical to ensure that accessible parking spaces are marked out in the same way throughout the region, Mifsud explains. “Many of the bays are marked out differently using various international codes. For example countless parking bays are marked blue, some are plain with just a wheelchair symbol and some don’t even have hatched markings to the sides which is critical to ensure that a wheelchair user is going to have enough space to get back in the car,” he adds.

Apart from the presence of the right facilities, the lack of information on accessibility is affecting the tourism trade. A hotel may have the right facilities to host people of determination, however if they do not market it right, the message will not reach the right audience. People of determination rely on knowing what facilities are available to them prior to visiting a country and travel during off peak or off season periods making them an attractive market for hotels during seasonally quiet periods, Mifsud says.

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“Hotels need to provide full information on their website about the access features of the hotel and accessible transport options. For example, if there is ramp access to the swimming pool, or how far the nearest metro station or bus is. Include photographs both of the interior and any local useful features. If the metro station has a dropped kerb for wheelchair access, show it [online]. “What surprises our clients is that it can be simple things such as introducing a management procedure or adding a flashing beacon to an existing alarm system to enhance accessibility,” he says.

It is quite often the simplest things like poor housekeeping that can be a barrier to accessibility. For example, in many accessible toilets guests find the emergency cord alarm tied up, this means should someone fall and need assistance, they won’t be able to reach the cord. Another good example is that toilet facilities are used as storage which then means that wheelchair users won’t have the required flexibility to use the facility.

An access audit identifies these aspects which are easy and free to immediately be actioned upon. “A good accessibility audit from a recognised accreditation, such as the UK’s National Register of Access Consultants will indicate actions that are required immediately, in the short and medium term and those that can wait until the next full refurbishment,” Mifsud explains. If you are a hotel owner or operator looking to make your property accessible for people of determination, the first thing that needs to be done is an accessibility audit. This process will conclude with an action plan to reach the ultimate goal of being accessible and inclusive for people of determination.

A qualified access consultant from the UK’s National Register of access consultants will look at the facilities in place from top to toe including the current level of training offered to staff members, according to Mifsud. An access consultant understands not just the local legislation but best practice from around the world. This enables hotels to future-proof their design for any updates to local legislation during the operational stages of the project.

Making changes to existing design to enhance accessibility does not have a significant impact on cost if the consultant is involved from the outset, Mifsud says. Appointing a consultant also eliminates the possibility of being misled by a supplier, “Some suppliers state that their products are compliant but if installation is not done properly, it may make matters worse,” Misfid says.

“We often see this with tactile paving for blind people or those with low vision. The design codes specify this must be at the start and end of each flight of steps yet installers only cover the top or bottom of the steps. This is why it is crucial to ensure specifications are correct.”

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