Accessibility is an important part of any design process but surprisingly, in 2021 it’s still something that isn’t at the forefront of people’s minds. When people look at accessibility, they often consider access for wheelchairs, and don’t think about all disabilities and the importance of looking after the needs of everyone.

It’s a subject that’s always been close to the heart of ABDA project director, Gary Mackness. In his university days, one of his projects was to find a venue in Leicester and create a concept of his own choice. Whilst many fellow students thought about the aesthetics of the venue, Gary wanted to focus his time on accessibility so that the building could be enjoyed by all. He chose on old site near the centre of the city and decided it would make a good community hub where people of all abilities could mix and share leisure facilities, as opposed to a dedicated facility for people with disabilities.

After he watched a recent Institute of Hospitality webinar on accessibility, we caught up with Gary to find out his thoughts on this hot topic.

How do you think we are doing as a nation on accessible hospitality, leisure and tourism?

I think some sectors are doing more than others but as a nation we still have a long way to go. Some of the bigger tourism brands have a different mindset and are giving accessibility a lot of thought. The National Trust is a great example of a business who does it well. Sadly, I think it’s still some way down people’s list of priorities and so much more could be done. When it comes to design projects, the practicality and functionality of a space is so important. Whilst everyone wants a design to look good, and that’s also very important to us at ABDA, it must work operationally for our clients and their customers.

What’s the most important thing to consider with accessible design?

The big question you need to ask when you explore whether you are accessible is “are you excluding anyone with the facilities or services you are offering?” A truly accessible venue must not exclude anyone in society. When it comes to design this means not only entry into and around the building, but lighting, signage, use of space, noise levels and so much more.

What do you think is the biggest challenge with accessible design?

It’s a lack of knowledge, education and awareness. When studying, you don’t generally have specific training on accessibility in design as there are so many disability groups to cover. However, there is additional training that you can do and it’s also important to bring in experts to ensure you have thought about all areas of accessibility.

What are your hopes on accessible design in the future

I would love it to become a natural part of the design process for all designers. Imagine how good it will be when there is so much knowledge and awareness out there that accessibility comes naturally to everyone working in the hospitality industry. Events like the Institute of Hospitality webinar provide a fantastic opportunity for businesses to drive change.

What’s the biggest barrier to accessible design?

Unfortunately, budgets are probably the biggest barrier as it can add additional expense on a project. But what businesses don’t always understand is that if you get it right, it will bring a return on investment. The accessible market is worth over 250 billion pounds and if you promote an accessible venue correctly and offer fantastic customer service, your disabled customers will come back time and time again. I think apathy is also an issue as often people don’t consider accessibility until it impacts them or someone they care about. We should all play our part in making a difference as it’s the right thing to do.

If a hospitality business could only do one thing to change their design what would you recommend that is?

This is an impossible question as it depends on what area of accessibility you are looking at. For example, if you wanted to make it more suitable for wheelchair users you would look at access, but for a person with autism you would focus on reducing noise. When looking after those with a visual impairment lighting or signage would be the change needed. It’s a huge subject to consider and sadly there is no one fix, however, lots of small changes can make a really big difference to the overall experience.

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