By Robin Sheppard President of Bespoke Hotels and co-founder of the Blue Badge Access Awards

As we cautiously venture into a post-pandemic era, we can finally reflect on the impact the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has had on sectors and individuals around the world – but most notably, on that of the disabled community.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has highlighted the pre-existing inequalities in the UK. In November 2020, statistics from the ONS revealed that disabled people accounted for 59% of COVID-19 deaths. From this, it’s evident that more needs to be done to critically understand inequalities on the grounds of disability.


We believe the time is now to innovate change.


The recent national lockdowns have given non-disabled people an extraordinary insight into how it feels to have their freedoms restricted every hour of every day. A frightening, invisible danger has opened people’s eyes to what it is like to have to meticulously research and plan every trip, rely on other people, and sometimes decide that it is simpler and safer to stay at home.


This is what many disabled people experience on a daily basis – but it doesn’t have to be that way.


My mission is to make the hotel experience more joyful and inclusive for both disabled and non-disabled guests, designing and creating a place of beauty and practicality for everyone to enjoy.


We should capitalise on this moment to enact fundamental and positive change in the hospitality sector. Whether these changes are to the hotel design, the décor, or the branding – we need to build momentum on this topic and strive to gain equality for all.


I became very aware of inaccessible spaces following a battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a debilitating illness that interrupted my life in December 2004. It completely paralysed me from the neck down, taking almost two years of relentless physiotherapy for me to regain mobility.


Following this experience, I have striven to promote accessibility within the tourism and hospitality industries, launching the Blue Badge Access Awards in April 2016, alongside RIBA and the Design Council, with the aim of turning hotel bedrooms and public areas into ‘less-functional and hospitalised’ spaces. 


Through these outlets, I have been conveying to hotels, restaurants, bars and other hospitality and visitor venues that their facilities are inadequate, not just for wheelchair users, but for people with invisible disabilities – from limited eyesight through the range of spectrum disorders. It’s not just that facilities lack in practicality, but style, vision, and the joie de vivre that says, ‘you’re equal – you deserve to enjoy this place as much as everyone’.


To achieve this equality, I am calling for a change in the perception of accessible rooms in hotels – venturing away from clinical, hospitalised spaces and coining the term ‘liberty’ to replace the word ‘accessible’, to promote the rooms in a more positive, celebratory light.


We launched Hotel Brooklyn in February 2018, comprising 20 accessible bedrooms which we branded ‘Liberty’ rooms. We wanted to deviate from the typical accessible room offered, which will elicit an apologetic, ‘this is all we’ve got left’ from the receptionist and a request for a discount from able-bodied guests.


Our ‘Brooklynised’ spin on inclusive and accessible accommodation provides guests with a king-size bed and all the freedom they need. Comprising items such as a complimentary cocktail voucher, a digital flat-screen TV with Freeview and a Brooklyn library, the Liberty rooms we offer double as suites and family rooms, and are widely regarded as an upgrade.


As traditional thinking around accessibility and disability has been about mitigating rather than celebrating, it was fundamental that we change our Brooklyn hotel's accessible room names and interior to reflect this – and we encourage others to do the same.


We hope hoteliers can be inspired by, and improve upon the template used at Hotel Brooklyn and innovate their own accessible spaces and rooms for guests. By doing so, not only does it create a more inclusive, equal experience – but when encouraging hotels to take the ‘celebrate, don’t mitigate’ route, occupancy and revenue naturally go up. Subsequently, hoteliers get to increase their share of the £12billion accessible tourism market in England.


It is crucial to note that we cannot champion accessibility alone – we need the help of everyone to make these changes, no matter how big or small they may be. After all, this is not a disability issue – this is an opportunity to showcase how we can enable individual human beings to occupy space irrespective of their differences.


To summarise, in the words of Barack Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time” – and the time for change is now.


Robin Sheppard is the president of Bespoke Hotels, the UK’s Largest Independent Hotel Group which represents over 120 properties worldwide. It comprises 22 Scottish hotels, including Craiglynne Hotel, Dalmunzie Castle Hotel and Tulloch Castle Hotel. Robin is also the co-founder of the Blue Badge Access Awards. Founded in 2016, the awards are a global initiative bringing together a competition designed to reward design, as well as empathy and emotional intelligence.

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