Two Malay businessmen on a business trip one of whom is disabled having a handshake at the hotel lobby - accessible accommodation

Kerry Williams has seen first-hand the barriers that people with disability face when accommodation providers are not properly informed about varying accessibility needs.

It was on a trip to Tasmania with her late mother, who had Multiple Sclerosis, when yet another accessibility issue cropped up, that she knew she needed to take action.

They had checked into their accommodation to find that there was a step in the shower – something that would prevent her mother from being able to access it – which had not been raised when Williams had questioned this prior to booking.

“The first thing [mum] said was, ‘It’s OK Kel, I will hand wash for the week’. She automatically went into compromise mode – as people with disabilities are so used to doing in a less than accessible world,” Williams said.

“I’d had enough of mum having to compromise because of lack of accurate information. The Airbnb owner didn’t set out to be deceitful. I had asked her if the shower was step free.

“A 7cm lip in the shower was the equivalent of a mountain to my mum’s access needs. But to the owner, it was ‘just a little step’.”

The biggest mistake here, Williams explained, and one that many hotels can make is saying they are ‘Fully Accessible’ when they are not.

“Because there is a myriad of disability types, what is “fully accessible” to some, may not be to another,” she said.

“It is better for hotels to just state the facts of what they offer and let the traveller with the disability decide for themselves.

“People with disability need accurate information. And the bathroom is the most important room – include bathroom shots in all your marketing.”

Educating hoteliers on accessible accommodation

It was this incident that prompted Williams to set up Accessible Accommodation in 2019, run by a team of people with lived experience of disability, and now with a community of 33,000 followers with disability to inform its work.  

Williams and her team created a tiered rating system – the Accessible Qualified Program – to assess and grade accommodation, to arm operators with accurate and up-to-date information on accessibility and give peace of mind to travellers with disability.

The rating system spans three categories of physical disability – ‘assisted walking’, independent wheelchair user’ and ‘assisted wheelchair user’ – and later this year, will expand to cover vision, hearing and sensory needs.

Accessible Accommodation is set to expand its rating system to consider the needs of travellers with a vision impairment

“Every single qualifying question is based on what our 33,000 followers have told us they need,” Williams said.

“We built all the information by asking our followers and end users.”

In February 2023, the Association formed a partnership with Quest Apartment Hotels to improve the accessibility of their properties. The Ascott Limited has since licensed the Accessible Qualified rating system for use on its corporate websites.

Williams has been warmed by the enthusiastic response from hoteliers who are eager to learn how they can provide a more inclusive guest experience.

“My crew and I have assessed around 60 sites in person so far and have provided recommendations to improve their accessibility,” she said.

“[The franchisees] have genuinely been so proactive, actioning improvements in all but one location. I didn’t expect such a high success rate.”

The partnership has resulted in Quest’s first Tier 3 property, which caters to wheelchairs users that require assistance with equipment and or carers.

“Quest is the only major hotel brand in Australia to do this. Until now, it has only been ‘mom and pop’ Airbnb operators offering this,” Williams said.

And with 45% of Accessible Accommodation’s website views seeking Tier 3, and only 21% of its inventory meeting this need, Williams said there is much demand for this offering, spelling an opportunity for hoteliers, particularly when more and more states introducing levies on Airbnb operators.

L-R The Ascott Limited Australia GM of Brand and ESG, Anthea Dimitrakopoulos, Managing Director David Mansfield, and Accessible Accommodation Founder Kerry Williams

Overcoming the fear around accessibility

Over the last five years, Wiliams says the biggest barrier preventing hoteliers from embracing accessibility that she has observed is fear.

“They fear their accessible offering may not be good enough; they fear that they might get a poor review,” she explained.

“This is probably why six out of 10 hotels in the world with accessible rooms don’t advertise them on their websites.”

With many hoteliers overwhelmed by mixed information and varying standards around accessibility, Williams stresses the importance of progress over perfection.

“Hotels without accessibility, invariably think that to do accessibility well, they have to do it perfectly, and all at once. I explain that you can do it in stages – just start somewhere,” she urged.

Her advice is to gain guest experience feedback and, as funds allow and bookings increase, add more accessible features.

The minimum requirements for Tier 1, for example, include step free access; doors wider than 76 cm; and a step free shower with grab rails – facilities that prove invaluable when catering to an aging population.

“The majority of Tier 1 guests are seniors who may not consider themselves to have a disability, but like the convenience it provides,” Williams said.

“They may have had a hip replacement or are unsteady on their feet. If you think about the over-60 market who, as they age, will only need more accessibility, and couple this with 18% of Australians living with a disability, starting somewhere will pay off.”

Williams is now taking the program internationally to help travellers navigate the varying accessibility standards from country to country.

“Every country has different standards of accessibility, and some don’t have any at all,” Williams said.

“We designed the Accessible Qualified Program to be a universal equaliser, an easy-to-understand system that any traveller worldwide can understand.”