People with special needs love going on holiday just as much as everyone else and it can enrich their lives beyond compare. So it’s important that when they do decide to go on a trip, they can book in at an establishment that caters for them and makes them feel comfortable.
This is the aim of universal accessibility. It’s an international campaign to enable people with restricted physical ability – such as those whose mobility, sight or hearing is impaired – to enjoy the benefits of travel. This includes elderly people and pregnant women, people of small stature and those in wheelchairs or using crutches.
South Africa has in the past come under criticism over its lack of disabled-friendly facilities, from public transport to simple pavement ramps. The good news is that this is changing, as municipalities start incorporating the needs and physical abilities of all residents into their town planning. And the hospitality industry is gradually following suit.
In September, when we celebrated Tourism Month in South Africa, the theme was #TourismForAll – with the government promoting accessible and affordable travel for all our citizens.
This tied in perfectly with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s theme for Tourism Day, which was universal accessibility – promoting awareness of the right of society’s most vulnerable people to experience the joy of travelling.
This is by no means a small or select group. In fact, if marketed correctly, catering to people with special physical needs could have a favourable impact on an accommodation establishment’s triple bottom line – social, environmental and financial (or people, profits and planet).
Look at these statistics: The World Health Organisation estimates that 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. That’s one billion people! So enabling local and international travellers with physical impairments to enjoy South Africa’s tourist facilities, products and services makes sense from both a socially responsible and a commercial point of view.
The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa, a quality assurance body that rates member establishments according to a star grading system, also assesses them for universal accessibility compliance. In fact, several of these disabled-friendly establishments – from holiday resorts to upmarket hotels – were toasted during the recent Lilizela Tourism Awards, hosted by the Minister of Tourism, the National Department of Tourism and South African Tourism.
A shining example of what a graded establishment can do to make disabled people feel not just comfortable, but heartily welcome, is the ATKV Goudini Spa in the Western Cape. Located near Worcester, this self-catering family resort is proud to be regarded as a holiday destination of choice for blind and deaf visitors as well as wheelchair users, who derive much pleasure from its healing hot mineral springs as well as its custom-equipped facilities.
Says resort Manager Pieter du Toit: “We are constantly seeking ways to improve the experience of our guests and have recently redesigned another six of our rondavels to be totally disabled-friendly. An imported pool hoist has been installed in the indoor pool to assist people with special needs. In addition, we have built a completely new ablution facility for disabled people in our caravan park, as there was a demand from people in wheelchairs.”
It helps that the Goudini Spa has a wonderful relationship with its surrounding community, which is home to several organisations for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. “They normally visit us during the week, as we then grant them free access to our facilities and pools,” says du Toit, adding that two staff members were recently trained in sign language.
The resort has won awards (including a Lilizela Award) for its universal accessibility and constantly strives to be a good socially responsible corporate citizen. It has recently organised a golf day to raise funds for the Western Cape Association for Persons with Disabilities and has sourced placemats for a conference from the Institute for the Blind.
“We believe we are blessed to be a blessing to others,” du Toit says.
Even smaller establishments can offer universal access to guests, and it doesn’t need to cost a mint. Geoff Applewhite, the General Manager of the Gardenview Guest House in Port Elizabeth, says the place was retrofitted when being adapted from a family dwelling into a guest house.
“We have ramps for easy access at our front entrance and all facilities are available with no steps,” he explains. “Only one of our six rooms is universal access compliant, but I would say it is a good investment as the changes are very subtle and don’t detract from the overall appeal.”
Another establishment that has been graded for universal accessibility is the Holiday Inn Johannesburg-Rosebank, which opened its doors in 2010. General Manager Bill Frohlich says that being part of a global hotel brand with very strict universal accessibility standards ensured that this new Holiday Inn was built to comply.
“The adaptations range from access ramps to adapted bedrooms that can accommodate people in wheelchairs, as well as deaf and blind people,” he says.
“Special devices are available should a deaf person need the sense of comfort in knowing when an emergency situation occurs by placing a device called a Deafguard under their pillow that will vibrate in an emergency. Public restrooms and adapted bedrooms have an emergency pull cord, should someone be in distress. This will alert our team that someone requires assistance. Of course, there are also simple things like having the peephole in the room at a lower level and wardrobes that have lower shelves and hanger rails.”
He relates, however, how it has caused some amusement when some (non-physically challenged) guests have used the emergency cord to call for room service!
Frohlich says the Holiday Inn makes a special effort to welcome disabled people, who often find a hotel to be an intimidating and unfriendly place if it is not adapted to their needs. Several physically impaired guests have used the hotel’s meeting rooms, which are also adapted for universal access.
But, he adds, universal access goes beyond facilities to include customer service: “A culture of welcoming all people needs to be instilled in a team, and I am proud to say that our team does not discriminate and we accept and welcome all guests.”
These establishments are among a growing number that are currently graded for universal accessibility with the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa. It’s heartening to see that more and more players in the South African hospitality sector are giving consideration to the high number of physically challenged international travellers who want to enjoy the same level of independence and comfort that they do at home – and we hope more local establishments will follow suit.