Advantages of accessibility

Tuesday, 13 August 2013 00:47 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

For businesses to grow and achieve their maximum potential, their customer bases also needs to grow. No business organisation, large or small, can afford to leave out anybody who is a potential customer. Already an estimated 25% of Sri Lanka’s population, more throughout the world, find their movements restricted as a result of various debilitating conditions, including short-term injuries or chronic ailments – such as a broken leg or asthma. Often they are even not apparent as with arthritis, vertigo and back pain. In such inevitable circumstances, the quality of life depends on how safe and enabling are the man-made facilities, these people in particular and all of us in general, need to use in day-to-day life. Furthermore, as the baby-boomer generation begins to retire into its travel years, accessible tourism for all is an overlooked growing niche and yet untapped new profit for Sri Lanka. Injurious beliefs Business leaders often associate disability with wheelchairs and think that access is about entrances or ramps and grab bars. They fail to get the right guidance from accessibility experts, foolishly believing that the cost of compliance is prohibitive. There are several low cost measures that can significantly improve accessibility. It is an investment, not expenditure, to take steps to ensure the physical environment welcomes people – rather than deterring or marginalising them – regardless of their degree of ability, mobility in particular. Physical obstacles to access send an unintended message of unwelcome. It is not good business to alienate clientele in that way. Besides avoiding your establishment, they communicate their dissatisfaction to others. Many local hotels are now pricing out of the market with rates running much higher than those of competitive destinations like Malaysia, Thailand and even Maldives. But the most disturbing news is that, as revealed recently by Investment Promotions Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, in spite of over-charging there is no real improvements with essential facilities, attitudes, genuine customer care and services at most hotels. Although new hotels are under construction and several existing hotels are being refurbished and expanded, the audits I have performed confirm that essential facilities, especially with toilets and washing, still, fail to comply with basic international standards and thereby pose unwanted safety hazards and exclude even high spending groups ever increasing in size. It is a tragedy that even hotels, resorts and hospitals that promote alternative and integrated medical treatment, and that too at high prices, are given licence to function without essential facilities at premises complying with accessibility and safety standards, especially at toilet or washroom where patients are most vulnerable. New lucrative profit for Sri Lanka Senior citizens, those convalescing and wheelchair users often go out with friends, family or carers, which bring additional revenue. Studies provide evidence, especially with tourism, that this is a market underserved but growing niche with all three elements of an ideal travel customer: desire to travel, time to travel and means to travel. They continue to travel in increasing numbers and go for the facilities that provide accommodation that is suitable for their restricted physical abilities. If more suitable facilities were available – especially hotels winning customer loyalty – such people and much more would travel more. Yet, their high spending potential remains untapped by Sri Lanka due to lack of adequate facilities meeting accepted standards, failure of staff to acquire the skills necessary to serve them knowledgeably, and absence of marketing to earn their business. Yes new needs arise that shape travel decisions and sooner we act judiciously, we can win untapped lucrative market share. Businesses, in Sri Lanka in particular, should recognise that this increasing diverse group has the optimum potential to become your new profit resource. Judiciously make them your newest priority market segment. In short, business organisations that are accessible and user-friendly to everyone will be creating a reputation no money or advertising can ever buy them, as peoples’ caring business organisations providing high quality service to all customers alike. Be it a hotel, bank, hospital, restaurant or even a place of education, this is imperative to survive and succeed in today’s highly competitive business environment. Loss of customers through non-compliance is colossal compared to the money needed. The Government must soon bring and enforce laws that all hotels and resorts, for them to retain their star-grades, must comply with accessibility standards and stipulated performances specifications that also incorporate safety features and thereby arrest overlooking this untapped growth market. It is equally important, especially in the hotel industry, to obtain external expertise to audit, asses and evaluate existing facilities for compliance with standards and mandatory legal requirements A disastrous process continues However, it is disheartening to note the failure to establish, even after seven years, an overall mechanism for the effective enforcement and implementation of the accessibility regulations – even in respect of ongoing large-scale renovations at several reputed hotels and hospitals. Empowered authorities continue to turn a blind eye in passing building plans and issuing certificate of conformity, disregarding the procedures approved unanimously by the parliament and, furthermore, blatantly violating the orders of the country’s apex court to go scot-free! To optimise the results of development programs reaching everyone, ongoing constructions and renovations must ensure full participation of the public with ease in all daily activities, regardless of individuals’ degrees of ability. Arresting the waste of human potential in mobilising this asset and minimising unwanted dependency through empowering people in affording chance, not charity, are prerequisites to achieve a formidable and sustainable national economy. Even to optimise the results of development programs reaching everyone, facilities at buildings must be designed for full participation of the public with ease in all daily activities, regardless of individuals’ degrees of ability. Stunning revelations Amidst ongoing awareness programs, a copy of the circular MSS/7/8/ACC issued by the Ministry of Social Services on 4 October 2012 that was produced at the Supreme Court on 17 June last by the Deputy Solicitor General Sanjay Rajaratnam, no wonder, reveals: “Although a long time has passed since issuing accessibility regulations, still, public buildings are constructed and renovated without accessibility facilities. Furthermore, even existing buildings are not made accessible to the disabled.” Still, absence of an overall mechanism for the effective enforcement and implementation of the accessibility regulations and the Supreme Court Orders of April 2011 including punitive repercussions for the violators is evident, causing a debacle of national importance. Furthermore, this circular highlights a second root cause. Although 75% of the buildings the public needs to use in daily life belong to the private sector and in spite of the laws clearly requiring consultation and measures with the private sector to promote the rights of the disabled, the Government and Ministries overlook this imperative necessity. These critical shortcomings pose a serious threat to the national economy, as the country incurs substantial losses, economically, and socially. Need to wake up from slumber Plans are in place to make Sri Lanka the centre of excellence in tourism management and development in the region. For this to happen, inclusive facilities established rightly at hotels and resorts – especially toilets and bathing – are indispensable. The Government’s policy, as the Vision 2010 page 192 states, aims to mobilise disabled persons, empower and integrate them into society as useful equal partners. The ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ further states that accessibility is particularly important and that national and international standards and regulations applicable to fundamental social rights will be implemented as a matter of priority (page 19) in order to make Sri Lanka a truly disabled friendly country. To prevent is less costly, far easier and much better than to cure. But it requires authorities in all fields, hospitality, health and education in particular, to wake up from slumber, identify priorities and work with added responsibility to the society we live. However, designing for inclusion is a responsible task that requires specific practical experience and proven competence backed by several other essential skills to do this effectively without wasting precious resources and causing safety hazards. Businesses certainly need expert guidance as to how best to do this.

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