Opinion / Access all areas for customers with a disability

Whether using stairs, conversing with baristas, or browsing menus, interactions that most take for granted can make some businesses inaccessible for customers with a disability. Debra Ruh, CEO & Founder of Ruh Global IMPACT, a US-based disability advocate, and Tim Blanchard, a disability consultant and coffee enthusiast, share their insights on how coffee shops can become welcome spaces for all

Debra Ruh CEO of Ruh Global IMPACT (top inset), and Tim Blanchard, disability advisor and coffee enthusiast

According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), one in four Americans lives with a disability of some kind – that’s around 83 million people. In Europe, the figure stands at around 100 million, according to Eurostat, including around five million wheelchair users.
For coffee shops and hospitality operators, ensuring these individuals have proper access is an ethical, and often legal, imperative. But it also makes savvy business sense to ensure the widest group of customers can access high-quality hospitality.
Debra Ruh is CEO of Ruh Global IMPACT, a US-based social enterprise that promotes training and work opportunities for people with disabilities. Her organisation has worked with some of the world’s most prominent businesses, including Google, IBM and Huawei, as well as the United Nations (UN) to help them become disability inclusion leaders in their fields.
Ruh says that catering to the needs of people with disabilities in hospitality settings is frequently overlooked. To become truly inclusive, she urges businesses to assess every aspect of operations, including store design and staff training, but also digital interactions, including websites and apps.
“People living with disabilities including vision, hearing, mobility, and even cognitive loss are generally an afterthought when it comes to the built environment and digital inclusion,” she says.
“Coffee shops or restaurants should work to ensure that all customers, including those with experiences with disabilities, have different ways to communicate with staff, order in an accessible way and feel valued instead of feeling like they are a burden or not welcome.”
Staff training is another crucial element to building more inclusive environments, says Ruh, and something which needs to be an ongoing process.
“Ongoing training of entire teams is needed to ensure venues, including menus, websites and apps are accessible. Venues should also clearly state that all customers are welcome and train teams to welcome everyone. Another great idea is to hire people with lived experiences with disabilities.
“A good best practice is to work with someone that knows the community, identifies as being part of the community, and hires team members that are part of our community. For example, over 90% of my team proudly identify as having lived experiences with disabilities from birth.”
As Ruh highlights, it’s not just people with disabilities that expect stores to be accessible, but increasingly those with no special requirements.
“Society’s expectations have changed, and younger generations in particular expect everyone to be included,” she says.
Practical steps that cafés can take to ensure that all customers can be welcomed in-store include making sure counters are low enough for wheelchair users to engage with staff, and that bathrooms are adequately accessible and user friendly, Ruh adds.

“The most important thing for hospitality businesses in making that first step towards becoming accessible venues is a shift of mindset and recognising that it’s an issue”

Tim Blanchard is an avid coffee drinker as well as consultant and advocate for access and accessibility in hospitality and events and has first-hand experience navigating these challenges.
Blanchard was born with cerebral palsy, a condition which affects his movement, meaning that he uses a combination of walking, mobility scooter and wheelchair to get around, depending on the environment.
He echoes the importance of empathy when serving customers with a disability or accessibility requirements in hospitality settings and why small changes in mindset can have a big positive impact on user experience.
“The most important thing for hospitality businesses in making that first step towards becoming accessible venues is a shift of mindset and recognising that it’s an issue,” he says.
Blanchard emphasises that communication, such as clear signage and through staff, is an essential element of building inclusive hospitality spaces.
“It’s very important that lifts and the accessible entrances are signposted correctly so that first-time visitors know how to navigate venues.”
As Blanchard highlights, accessibility issues affect more people than many hospitality venues may realise, with inadequate access not only having a direct impact on users with specific requirements, but the overall experience of friends and family who may be joining them.
“This isn’t just important for wheelchair users, but those with visual impairment, elderly people and those with buggies and small children. For many groups of people, whether they’re pregnant, elderly, visually impaired or disabled like myself, accessibility in one form or another will not be far from their minds.”

“The coffee industry can sometimes suffer from being a little exclusive and even elitist”

Blanchard acknowledges that many hospitality venues, such as those in older buildings or with space constraints, will need to be realistic about the changes they can implement in-store. Nevertheless, he emphasises that having greater awareness around accessibility and even making small changes can have a positive impact for customers who may find accessing venues challenging.
“It’s about having an awareness if you see someone approaching your coffee shop with a physical impairment,” he says.
“The coffee industry can sometimes suffer from being a little exclusive and even elitist. I’ve always thought that’s a real shame because for me the enjoyment of coffee is all about celebration. From the product, the people and all the effort that goes along the supply chain from the growers to the roasters and the brewers, coffee is about coming together and celebrating community.
“I want as many people as possible to be involved in that. It shouldn’t be that elderly people or those with children should be excluded from these great experiences in coffee.
“Whether visiting a café or a coffee event, I want coffee to be available for everyone.”

This article was first published in Issue 11 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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