This is going to be a bit of philosophising post. Less about our family and more about my feelings and debates about decisions.
As a disabled person my values and beliefs are very much based on ‘the social model’ of disability, which, in a nutshell, means that I, like many disabled people, believe that I’m not disabled by the fact that I can’t see, or by any other impairment. The social model agues that the disability is created by bariers which exist within society and the environment such as the design of buildings, the attitudes and behaviour of other people, the way systems are set up etc.
Go4M, the organisation I work for and Merton Centre for Independent Living (Merton CIL) – which I’m involved with as a Board Member, are both user-led organisations run and controlled by disabled people. Both organisations are involved in campaigning for the rights of disabled people to make choices, take control of their lives and to be incuded as full and equal citizens. Inclusion of disabled people rather than segregation forms a fundemental principal and value of the work of both organisations and, I would like to think, of my values.
However, this week I have thought quite a lot about the notion of inclusion in relation to the choice we made about our recent holiday. I am not an academic, just a campaigning, musing mum, but I did feel I wanted to share some of my thoughts and to see if anyone else has views or comments to make.
Our recent holiday was spent in the lake district at The Windermere Mannor hotel run by Vision Hotels. These hotels were originally established to cater specifically for the needs of visually impaired people. Indeed, they still specialise in catering for the needs of visually impaired people. However they now operate as a not for profit business and take bookings from anyone wishing to stay.
So, why should we choose to stay at such a hotel? Why not expect to look around and stay at any of the other hundreds of hotels in the Lake District? This is the question I found myself asking. In truth we could easily have looked for and stayed somewhere else, and on many occasions we have stayed at hotels that don’t cater for specific needs. On the whole we have had good service and found staff to be helpful with buffet meals, reading menus, carrying drinks etc. However, there are a number of advantages above and beyond the basic thoughtfulness and courtesy of hotel staff that, for us, make staying at this hotel and others in the group a preferable option.
On many occasions, although not this time, we have travelled with friends or family with guide dogs. These hotels not only accept dogs, but, for guide dog oweners, will provide a dog bed, order in dog food and provide ‘spending areas’ and runs for the dogs. Although all hotels should now accept guide dogs, I’m not sure how many would order food, provide beds or spending areas! These are important issues for visually impaired people who often travel by train and carrying supplies for the dog as well as themselves may be inpractical.
So, this time we weren’t with family or friends, so no guide dog! Ok, so why stay at a Vision Hotel? The answer is simple really. Its easy, its convenient, there are some little extra helpful touches that you wouldn’t get from other places. This sounds daft, even to me, but it is so much more relaxing to be in a bar or hotel and for D to go and get the drinks. He does this at other places, but I always feel I have to keep an eye out for other people and to give him much more information in terms of directions (which he hates!). At the Vision Hotels I can just leave him to get on with it. Part of me feels embarrassed about feeling like this. I should be able to feel relaxed in any other environment and D should feel able to treck accross a bar without me watching and prompting with ‘left a bits’ and ‘right a bits’, but the fact is I don’t relax as much as I can at Vision hotels.
We went to the Lake District because we wanted to take the children walking on the fells. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work. I love walking, but haven’t done it for years and when I used to go it was always with sighted friends who could map-read and navigate. So, we spoke to the hotel before we travelled to get some advice. The staff organised for a couple of volunteers to go out with us on the first day. Now this is a service I’m not sure that would ever be provided through other hotels (unless you paid a substantial sum of money). The result of this was a brilliant day out, which gave our children the appetite for more and gave me the confidence and belief that we would be able to go out without guides if we worked together. The results are there in my previous posts.
For us the other advantages of Vison Hotels are little things that may not seem important, but they do make a difference. Braille key fobs, so D doesn’t have to keep asking me or the children which room key is which, a hotel restaurant WITHOUT a buffet, so I can actually sit at the table instead of spending half a mealtime getting up and down fetching and carrying and supervising my children (who love buffets rather too much!). And last, but by no means least! the really cool raised map on the wall of all the fells, lakes and mountains. This was fantastic. We were able to show D where we had walked and the heights of the fells were relative to each other. I love things like this!
So, all of these reasons feel like a good justification for staying at a specialist hotel, however, I still don’t feel comfortable with the notion. It does not sit well with my belief in inclusion rather than segregation of disabled people.
Ok, I think, perhaps I should argue that we don’t need these hotels. We as visually impaired people, should go to other hotels, we should be proud of who we are, we should ask for help with buffets, with ordering drinks etc. More information should be provided in braille and people shouldn’t feel embarrassed to ask for information to be read out. We should expect other hotels, not only to accept guide dogs, but to welcome them and arrange the little extras needed as a matter of general customer service.
In reality my family and many of my friends could take this option, but for many of the guests who stay at these hotels this option would simply be too much. The reason pepole go to stay in hotels in usually because they are going on holiday or for a break, the idea being that they want to relax and get away from the stresses of everyday life. So the notion of going somewhere unfamiliar where they have to ask for every little need to be met in an environment where others are not aware of the issues, challenges and experiences of visual impairment is probably a step too far.
So, I have talked myself into believing there is a role for specialist hotels, but the debate doesn’t end there. Every time we have stayed in one of these hotels over the last few years there has been much discussion amongst the guests, particularly those visually impaired guests who have been regular customers for many years, about whether the hotels should be open to non-visually impaired people and on what basis, should visually impaired people be given priority on bookings at peak times etc.
Now, on this point I think I am able to go some way to relieving my ‘inclusion’ consience. I do believe the hotels should be open to all. This is in the interests of inclusion and economy. In these times the hotels need to cover their costs. Taking general bookings provides an income which enables the hotels to continue to operate and to provide the specialist touches that make them easy and relaxing places for visaully impaired people to visit. Not only does it generate much needed income, but it also fosters an inclusive environment. Even on some small level it may make some people more aware of the needs of visaully impaired people. I would possibly even go as far as to say there should be more hotels around that cater for specific needs such as visual impairment. Afterall, there are hotels that advertise themselves as ‘golf’ hotels, but not everyone who stays there is a golfer. or hotels that specialise in spa breaks, but not every guest will use the spa.
The more controversial issue for many regular visually impaired guests is the feeling that they will be ‘pushed out’ and ‘excluded’ from the vision hotels as they become more popular with the non-visually impaired community. My views on this are also probably more controversial too. I believe that, like any booking system, priority should be given to those who book first. If you have a particular need or preference for a particular service you will tend to book well in advance to ensure you get your preference. I don’t think, we as visually impaired people, should expect to be treated differently in this respect. However, what I do think is very important is that the standard of service that visually impaired guests have come to expect at these hotels over the years should be maintained and that once bookings are taken and while guests are there they should expect good service and their needs to be met.
I think the difficulty of operating in the general. commercial environment will present a big challenge to the management of vision hotels in that there is very little competition for the visually impaired guests, whilst there is a lot at stake in satisfying the needs of those without visual impairment. The key to success will be in making it work for both communities.
So, to sum up, ‘Inclusion or Not?’ I am convinced that inclusion as a general principal is way to go, but with inclusion of any sort, for any group we must not devalue the notion of ‘peer support’. The confidence that people gain from being together in an environment of shared experiences and understanding goes a long way to supporting people to lead full lives as equal citizens.
Thanks for reading and please share. i would be interested to hear other views and experiences.