Why does an industry built on the concept of welcoming all guests so often overlook disabled customers? Kate Malczewski investigates how bars and pubs can be more inclusive
In March 2018, spirits educator Hannah Lanfear created a document titled ‘London Cocktail Bars Inclusivity Matrix’ and added it to the London Bartenders’ Association (LBA) Facebook group. In her post, she asked the LBA – a community of thousands of bar workers in the capital and beyond – to comment with details about their venues’ accessibility features, for both disabled customers and LGBTQI+ guests.
Such a document ‘would give us all a tool that we can use to recommend spaces for people with specific needs’, she wrote at the time.
Unfortunately, the Inclusivity Matrix did not gain the momentum Lanfear hoped it would. ‘Only three people filled it in,’ she tells me. ‘But what we did learn from it, just as we suspected, was that there are very, very few venues in London that are accessible.’
Data supports Lanfear’s experience. In a 2019 survey of more than 1,000 disabled people conducted by disabled access review website Euan’s Guide, 26% of respondents felt that cafes and restaurants typically have poor accessibility; for bars and pubs, that number climbed to 36%.
And if the legal and moral responsibilities of ensuring accessibility aren’t enough to stir some self reflection, consider the financial potential: As of 2017, the spending power of disabled people and their households – often called the ‘purple pound’ – was worth £249 billion to UK businesses, according to disability organisation Purple. That same year, restaurants, pubs and clubs lost out on an estimated £163m due to lack of accessibility.
Given Covid-19’s impact on hospitality venues, the economic benefits of accessibility are more important than ever. So how can we as an industry create more accessible spaces for disabled customers?
Lessons from leaders
Learning from venues at the forefront of accessibility is a good place to start.
At his forthcoming restaurant Contento in New York City, sommelier and restaurateur Yannick Benjamin aims to make the space entirely barrier free – which, to him, means ‘that someone with a disability can go in there and feel welcomed and not feel intimidated’.
A wheelchair user himself since 2003, Benjamin wants Contento to be a model of inclusivity for the hospitality industry, and has designed the restaurant accordingly.
Its features include a ‘completely wheelchair accessible’ bathroom, adaptive forks and knives, menus with QR coded audio files for visually impaired customers, and a bar with wheelchair-friendly counter seating.
‘The objective is to make sure that hopefully this picks up, and that we can be a reference point for other restaurants,’ Benjamin says. His first piece of advice for venues looking to improve their accessibility? ‘First and foremost, it's making sure that the bathroom is accessible.’
Five-star hotels provide another reference point for the hospitality industry. Admittedly, these bastions of service have funding, infrastructure and space that many venues do not, allowing them to invest significantly in their accessibility features – but these features are worth examining nonetheless. At the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel in London, for instance, one specific issue was a lack of step-free access at the entrance.
‘As the [hotel] building is over a century old, built in 1898, there were certain challenges to overcome to ensure accessibility and inclusion for everyone,’ explains Garreth Walsh, general manager of the Kimpton Fitzroy.
The solution to this particular challenge was a marble-clad wheelchair lift designed by Sesame Access, an ‘invisible’ lift company. Installed during the hotel’s two-year, £85m refurbishment, the Kimpton’s lift is hidden as part of the main entrance’s staircase when not in use.
The feature helped the hotel win a 2019 Blue Badge Access Award for ‘thoughtful and stylish inclusive design’. It’s a creative approach to accessibility and an example worth following for businesses with the funds for large-scale projects.
What’s more, it highlights how notable accessibility features can signify a venue’s commitment to welcoming everyone, putting that venue front of mind for potential customers who prioritise disabled access.
Not all solutions require operators to build a venue from the ground up, or to invest in major renovations, however. Communicating your venue’s accessibility information properly is one of the most helpful changes you can make, and it doesn’t necessarily cost anything at all.
According to Abby Richards, communications manager for Euan’s Guide (see boxes), ‘the most common complaint [from disabled customers] is venues not providing good-quality disabled access information’. She notes that ‘many people will simply avoid places that don’t share information on their accessibility’, assuming these venues are inaccessible.
Lanfear has seen the consequences of this lack of communication play out in bars. ‘I can tell you of at least three venues that have had an accessible bathroom put in, but are now using it as a store cupboard,’ she says. ‘It has to be known to exist to be used.’
Breaking this cycle is straightforward enough: shout about your venue’s accessibility features in any way you can. Richards recommends sharing this information on your business’ website and social media accounts, and by creating a listing on Euan’s Guide. Include photos of the space; be as detailed as possible.
Strike blanket terms like ‘fully accessible’ from your vocabulary, and opt for specific descriptions instead. How can a wheelchair user enter the venue? Does it have accessible toilets – and if so, and what makes them accessible? Are you happy to move tables and chairs as required? Do you keep large-print and braille menus on hand? Are there steps, and where?
‘It is important to be clear about what your venue has to offer, and also what you don’t have, so that people can decide for themselves whether or not the venue is going to be accessible for them,’ Richards says.
Of course, it’s essential that the communication you’ve established in your online presence continues once a guest enters your venue.
Data from Papworth Trust Facts & Figures 2018 shows that three-quarters of disabled people have left a shop or business because of poor disability awareness or understanding. Clearly, staff training is fundamental to creating an accessible experience.
Part of this training involves educating your employees on your venue’s specific accessibility features. ‘This could be working your hearing loop or platform lift or knowing where your portable ramp and large print menu are kept,’ explains Richards.
She suggests providing all staff with training, as well as appointing ‘access champions’, particular employees who specialise in your venue’s accessibility. ‘It means that if a staff member doesn’t know the answers to questions, then they know who to ask.’
But, just as crucial to this education, is sensitivity training. Teaching your staff inclusive language and etiquette ‘should be required’, says Benjamin. It’s all a matter of making every customer feel welcome. ‘Without being overly patronising to guests, always make the extra step and ask, “Hey, is there something I can help you with?”’
At Contento, he hopes to include a few key phrases in sign language as part of this training, too. ‘Gestures like that go a long way, and they build up the confidence and the comfort level for that person with disability.’
Richards also points out the positive impact of seemingly small actions. ‘A simple “hello” can make a big difference,’ she says. ‘Encourage your staff to greet everybody who visits your venue and to offer some basic information.’
Indeed, though different people have different requirements for accessibility, working towards more accessible spaces benefits everyone, from your customers, to your staff, to the stakeholders in your business.
As Benjamin puts it: ‘Understanding what other communities are going through and what you can do better for them will help enhance your restaurant.’ Make space for everyone at the table, and more people will come to sit.