Forget “wheelchair friendly”, we want “universal access”!

Many accommodation websites contain a section headed “wheelchair friendly”, but what does this term actually mean?

When you contact the establishment itself and start asking specifics, you will often find that only one or two access issues have been addressed. To the lay person, “wheelchair friendly” probably means the inclusion of a ramp or maybe the odd grab rail. It seems that owners of hotels, B&Bs and other accommodation facilities only look at the section of the population that they are aware of – the elderly, which usually means that they are mobile enough to stand up and step into a bath or shower.

It is also assumed that they usually do not travel alone, and would have assistance to accomplish daily living tasks. We need to lose this term and ensure that establishments start making their entire property universally accessible. This would include wheelchair access, which means a step-free access route throughout the property’s general areas and to the accessible bedroom as well as accessible toilets in the public areas. Universal access covers many other aspects, such as facilities for people with hearing and visual impairments. For a property to be universally accessible (through universal design principles), it must cater for a broad segment of the population, from children, people of short stature and pregnant women to parents with prams, people with mobility, visual and hearing impairments and those with temporary mobility impairments – and just gewone able-bodied people as well!

So until we can get the tourism industry to change its mind-set, how can we ensure that the venue will accommodate our specific needs? Here are some tips to help you and the establishment to ensure – in advance – that you’ll be comfortably accommodated.

  1. Contact the hotel or guest house directly. Do not go through a central booking office – the person you talk to may have never been to the place you are enquiring about. The manager on-site will be able to give you a better answer, and if necessary will take measurements or snap photos for you. A picture is worth 1 000 words; sometimes a standard room or bathroom may become accessible to you with just a few small changes.
  2. Ask about access from the gate to the reception area, including the parking area. The gate: if you are arriving by car, is there a security guard on duty or an intercom that is within reach? If not, is there a contact number on the outer wall for the guest to call the reception to inform them that they are at the gate? The parking: is there an accessible parking bay (a wide one) to allow access for a mobility aid next to the car? If not, ask the venue to hold two bays for you or a bay at the end of a row, so that there is extra space. The reception: again, check that there is step-free access, and that the entrance doors are not on automatic closers. If not, arrange to call ahead so that assistance can be available to get you and your luggage into the building.
  3. The room
  • Ask whether the accessible room is on a step-free route from the main entrance.
  • Ask about the bed height and if there are options of bed size – single, double, queen or king.
  • Check that there is sufficient space on one side of the bed to accommodate a mobility aid.
  • Check that the bedside light switches are within your reach.
  • Check that the wardrobes have lower rails. If they don’t, you should take along a couple of hangers and hang these onto the upper hangers to create lower access to clothes.
  • Check where the safe is situated and if it is large enough for your laptop. If it’s too high, you will have to carry your laptop with you all the time or ask if they have a central safe to store it when you want to leave the premises without it.
  • Check that the plugs are at an acceptable height or bring along your own multi-plug adaptor on an extension cord.
  1. The bathroom
  • Ask if there is an accessible bathroom attached to the room you want to book.
  • Check if there is a bath or shower, and whether the shower is step-free.
  • Check that the step-free shower has a built-in seat or flap-down one.
  • Check if there are grab rails in the toilet and shower area.
  1. If you are attending a function or conference at the venue as well as staying there, check that there is easy access to the conference venue and that there are accessible toilets nearby: it is time-consuming to have to go back to your room to use the facilities mid-conference!
  2. Check that the bar or restaurant is accessible and, if not, that there will be staff available
    to assist with bringing refreshments to your table.
  3. If you’re planning to stay at a guesthouse, get the reception number or cellphone number of the manager, as you may arrive after hours or when they are not on duty.

Remember, planning helps to take the hassle out of a trip. And if you come across an unforeseen issue when you get there, a friendly attitude and rational suggestions will usually be accepted by the management.

I am compiling a database of accessible properties, so would welcome any feedback from you about places you have stayed in that either are accessible or claim to be so. Please send info to mandy@noveltravel.co.za.

Happy travels!


Mandy Latimore is a consultant in the disability sector in the fields of travel and access. email: mandy@noveltravel.co.za

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