What does real accessible design mean for the hospitality industry?
As an interior designer specialising in hospitality design, I’m familiar with the accessibility regulations. What’s required to ensure your project receives a building permit. But in the last 12 months, as I’ve gone out with my wheelchair restricted aunt I’ve had direct experience on the effectiveness of these regulations. Here are my thoughts on what does real accessible design mean in the hospitality industry.
Negative space, flow of movement
In any room there is negative space and positive space. The positive space is taken up with the furniture that supports the function.
In a hospitality space the furniture that supports the function is primarily tables and chairs. In some spaces this is booths, stools and so on.
The negative space is equally important also. This is the empty space that allows the flow of movement for people to access the furniture in the positive space.
I’m aware that ‘pathways’ need to be at least 800mm wide to fit a wheelchair or other walking aid. But walking with my aunt in a wheelchair I found there’s also the need to turn around and go backwards.
The minimum requirement for a pathway means I can’t turn around to find another table. I must walk all the way to end of the dining area to turn around.
If we do find a table, I need to wheel my aunt into position and sometimes that means going backwards which is not always possible because of the tables behind me.
So, I think more room in between table settings for people with walking aids and wheelchairs is important when working on the floor plan of your café, bar or restaurant.
Alternatively, a dedicated area, close to the entrance with ample negative space could work if suitable in your site. I understand that hospitality business owners want as many seats as possible. But providing an inviting and comfortable space for all diners is also important.
Ramps, stairs and lifts
Often, I’ve been to cafes, bars, and restaurants with my aunt where there have been no ramps or lifts. In one place we visit regularly, we are seated away from the main dining area because the main dining area is accessed by stairs only.
In another place, even though I made a booking because I didn’t specify in my reservation that I had a special need, we were allocated a table downstairs, an area we couldn’t access.
So even though we had a booking we had to leave and go to the casual dining area of this hotel instead of the bistro area.
This was not ideal, we both felt awful and disregarded.
Disabled car parks
I have found that although there is a disabled car park in most places we go to, sometimes there are not enough.
When the disabled car parks are full, I must drop my aunt off at the entrance, leave her there in her wheelchair, find a car spot and come back.
Again, not an ideal situation, so I recommend having more than the minimal required number of car parks. Especially if you’re in a suburban area.
Often the primary consideration for table sizes in hospitality design takes into account the menu, the serving sizes, and the plate sizes.
I’ll be honest and admit that in my experience, rarely does the table size consider a wheelchair. Not from a depth or width perspective. If an accessible pathway has to be a minimum of 800mm wide then it doesn’t make sense that your table tops are just 600mm wide.
When we sit at a table my aunt must fold back the footrest of her wheelchair to get as close as possible.
I realise that larger tables means less room and less customers. But there is a balance that can be achieved with consideration in the planning stages.
Walking a person in a wheelchair is hard. It’s heavy and awkward. Most cafes, bars and restaurants have a suitable floor for commercial purposes.
That is high foot traffic, easy to clean, fire rated and so on. But some places I’ve been with my aunt have had unsuitable flooring such as blue stone.
It’s hard to walk on blue stone let alone walk with a person in a wheelchair, so it’s important that flooring surfaces in hospitality spaces are even for people who are in wheelchair or other walking aid.
For people in wheelchairs entrances are important. Not just the type of door but what happens when they enter the space. For example, how are they greeted?
We know first impressions matter. But unlike other customers who might be interested in how a café, bar, and restaurant looks and if it’s Insta worthy, people in wheelchair consider other factors as their first impression.
Such as signage, that is where the toilets are. This is important because it impacts where they sit and far away the toilet is.
But let’s consider the actual door as well. So many times, I have had to ask for help to open a door because I couldn’t open it and push my aunt at the same time. As a women who values independence, I hate that I have to ask for help to open a door.
Automatic doors are the best for accessibility but I realise they’re not ideal or suitable for all sites. So if you’re a hospitality business owner consider how to make people in a wheelchair easily enter your business.
Even in a five-star hotel we’ve had to use the ugle service lift and walk through the ugly kitchen to get to our seat, not great. I would expect a five-star hotel to have real accessible design for hospitality purposes.
So often when I’m working on a project, things come up that we didn’t anticipate in the design and drawing stage. I believe this is because a space is 3D whereas drawings are 2D and while helpful have their limitations.
It’s only when you’re in a space do you get a sense of function, and flow and how people will interact with the space.
There are many touch points to your customer’s journey. Probably staring with a Google search and an online reservation.
Ensure the online reservation booking system easily allows your customers to book with a wheelchair. Have accessibility information on your website. So often, we had to call to ask how far the car park is from the entrance. Does the entrance have a sliding door etc?
And train your employees to meet and greet and seat disabled diners with attentiveness and consideration, for example close to the toilet, and at a table with ample negative space and so on.
If accessibility and inclusivity are important to you then I highly recommend engaging with a disability consultant. Your interior designer will be aware of the regulations but someone with experience will have valuable insights.
Real accessible design in the hospitality industry means careful consideration of all the micro details that impact a disabled person’s experience so that their time in your business is just as positive as anyone else’s.