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4 Things I've Learned About Accessibility as a Bed and Breakfast Owner

When my husband and I purchased our bed and breakfast in 2005, we deliberately sought out a property that was already in business with the knowledge that an existing inn would already have gotten any licenses and permits necessary to comply with all necessary laws and regulations, including those regarding accessibility. While this was true to an extent, as the years have gone on, some laws have changed and the simple act of encountering guests of varying needs has forced us to adapt our accessibility accommodations.

The following are some of the things we have learned that have informed how we do business and have made us better hosts to all of our guests regardless of their disabilities or unique needs. These are factors that any restaurant or inn might consider so that they can accommodate the greatest number of clientele possible.

1. Layout.

I understand that the bottom line for any business is profitability, but sometimes, maximizing profitability isn’t what’s best for customer service. Cramming as many guests in as possible seems like the best way to turn a profit in a business where margins are already slim. But having tables crowded too close together poses a number of issues regarding accessibility.

First, the obvious issue of not leaving enough space between tables is the ability of someone in a wheelchair to navigate between tables, particularly when every chair is full. Second, having tables too close together can be a noise issue. For those with noise sensitivities or hearing loss, the ability to socialize with others at their table without the disruption of ambient noise and overhearing everyone else’s conversations is a huge issue. And finally, in today’s world where COVID is becoming endemic, it makes good epidemiological sense to spread tables out, enabling good airflow and the social distancing needed to make dining out less of a dangerous activity.

I can see you counting dollar signs and wondering how you are supposed to offset lost revenue by limiting the number of tables. Fewer tables mean less staff, and each staff member can handle a slightly larger station. And I’d argue that people are willing to pay a little more for a more comfortable ambiance. Creating better flow is good business because it’s responsible business practice.

2. Good communication regarding dietary restrictions.

Breakfast at the Chestnut Street Inn

I’ve written extensively about accommodating dietary restrictions being good business and have contributed several articles including recipes focused on different types of dietary restrictions and accessibility needs. But I haven’t discussed the challenges of getting the correct information that I need to be able to insure that not only are you safe, but your meals are delicious.

Part of this is on me, or any employee working in the hospitality arena. I ask about dietary restrictions both online during the reservation process and over the phone when taking reservations, but I don’t always make clear that dietary restrictions aren’t just allergies or intolerances. There is a myriad of considerations that I personally want to know, including likes/dislikes. The last thing I want is to feed you poached eggs when you hate runny eggs. That’s something that I could have easily adjusted with the correct information.

But there’s a more nuanced aspect of dietary restrictions that for some reason has been harder to get clear instruction on, and that is food sensitivities having to do with neurodivergence including autism and sensory processing disorder. I have in the past had teenagers and young adults who require very specific types of foods, textures, and temperatures, and need individual ingredients separated so that they don’t touch. I am more than happy to accommodate this type of request as it’s important to me that everyone be able to dine with us. However, I find that would-be guests are less likely to bring this kind of request up specifically and instead dance around the issue. I suspect that too often they are met with suspicion or judgment of some kind, which makes me sad. My earnest request for these individuals is to be upfront. There’s absolutely no shame in asking for these needs to be met, but I’m not a mind reader, and if you aren’t specific, I may not realize the context of what you are requesting.

The bottom line: regardless of what the request is, please be upfront, clear, and ask. In almost every case, if I am able to, I will go out of my way to accommodate you and your loved ones, but it takes two to tango, so I’ll need you to be my partner in getting your needs met.

3. Education.

I admit that as the years have progressed and I’ve encountered more and more guests with varying accessibility needs, I have had to do the necessary research to educate myself on each particular situation and condition. Part of my ongoing awareness has been connecting with those in the Mighty community. I’ll be the first to say I’ve made my fair share of mistakes based on my lack of knowledge and understanding. I am humble enough to say I was wrong or acting out of some kind of implicit ableism thanks to my own privilege. While it’s nobody’s job to teach me, my true desire to give people the greatest possible hospitality experience has offered me the opportunity to listen and adapt.

For example, the types of different diets and food protocols that individuals are utilizing to manage chronic illness have expanded exponentially. Where it used to be a single ingredient or a handful of ingredients, like gluten-free or dairy-free, the list now includes things like Low Fodmap, Paleo, Keto, and Autoimmune Protocol. I know many people think these types of diets are fads and view them with some skepticism, but I personally have witnessed the beneficial impact these diets have had on others, so I have made it my mission to become an expert in each one and to refresh my knowledge every time these guests come to dine or stay with us, adjusting as new information is added. Again, everyone deserves to experience fine dining, regardless of their needs.

4. Evolution.

I’m not talking about Darwin here, although I do believe that in business, today more than ever, it’s survival of the fittest, and those who can evolve and adapt can continue to succeed. COVID certainly proved this point where hospitality has been concerned. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve been in business for 17 years. When we first got here, a basic website and a handful of listings on online directories were all we had to deal with where online presence was concerned. Over the course of the past several years, we’ve had to expand our marketing to include all kinds of social media and digital content, and have had to rebuild our website numerous times, most recently to accommodate changes in requirements for websites to be accessible for the visually impaired. This is the type of evolution I’m talking about…something that I hadn’t considered but that absolutely makes sense and is the right thing to do.

Other considerations have been how we could accommodate wheelchairs in our dining room, even though all of our guest suites are on the second floor and due to the historical nature of our property (it was built in 1854) we were not required to make any additional changes based on ADA requirements. While certainly not ideal, we have utilized temporary ramps that enable our guests in wheelchairs to dine with us. Additionally, we have added support railings to our front entrance, have two showers that are walk-in showers rather than shower/tub combos, and have put refrigerators in all guest suites to accommodate guests needing to refrigerate medication. They are small things, but as situations arise and we figure out how to implement changes that are not cost-prohibitive, we make them.

We are always a work in progress, but the goal is to make progress and consistently expand our ability to serve as many individuals from as diverse a cross-section of the population as we can. Part of this includes safety and comfort for those with disabilities of all kinds. We listen, we pay attention, we learn, and we adapt. That’s the best any business owner can do, but it takes a conscious effort and a desire to commit to viewing running a business as more of a holistic practice.

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