Creating accessible environments for those living with disabilities is often framed as a social issue occurring outside the business community.
Yet people with disabilities are our families and friends, colleagues, and staff. They are potential customers and potential employees. They have a lot to contribute to our country and our businesses. That is, if we break down the barriers.
Everyday a staggering one in four kiwis face daily challenges accessing things many take for granted. For those living with disabilities, accessing things like employment, education, shopping, accessing consumer goods and information, and getting around their town or city can be a daily battle.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
CEO of Sudima Hotels, Sudesh Jhunjhnuwala, runs an enterprise which is living proof that change is possible. That accessibility in business can be done, and done well. In a way which benefits society, but is also great for business.
Sudima Hotels is a family-run company with hotels in Christchurch, Auckland, Hamilton and Rotorua, and another two under development. As committed supporters of the Access Matters movement, campaigning for an accessibility law at the heart of a more inclusive New Zealand, Sudima works to make their business fully accessible to all.
For Sudesh, it’s about creating a society all people can participate in, regardless of their disability. “It’s all about being inclusive. If someone with some need walks in, they shouldn’t feel excluded. They should be treated fairly, and be able to enjoy our facilities, just like everyone else does.”
What does a fully accessible business look like? Sudima have been successful in making their hotels fully accessible to their customers with mobility issues, who use wheelchairs, for example. This stretches beyond minimum standards - with the company providing accessible entrances, toilets, rooms, restaurants and more.
It doesn’t stop there. Sudima took this further, incorporating a braille menu for those using their restaurants who are blind or have low vision, and providing special evacuation chairs in their hotels in case of emergency. “We are constantly trying to push the boundaries, and look at ways we can improve our accessibility”, Sudesh explained.
Sudima strives to include all customers, but also works to create a working environment fully accessible to staff, too. Having employees who are deaf and have low hearing, Sudima ensure there are sign language interpreters during staff meetings. Some staff have even started learning sign language so they can communicate with their colleagues.
It is, Sudesh stressed, an integral part of Sudima’s workplace culture, and not something pushed by those in charge. “My team come up with suggestions on how we can do things better and how we can improve accessibility.” Sudesh reflected. “We have over 400 staff and they have all bought into it. They all believe in it. Accessibility is ingrained in their psyche - that we have a responsibility to do something more than just lip service.”
While Sudima is working hard to make their business fully accessible, Sudesh shared that he didn’t always have this level of motivation in the area of accessibility. “When I was putting a new extension on our Christchurch hotel, I was told I had to bring everything up to code and add four new extra accessible rooms. I was like, wow, do I really need to do that!? I had a kind of mental block.”
Looking back, Sudesh tried to put his finger on why he had that reaction. “It’s not so much about the cost, really. I think what a lot of businesses think about is that we are being arm twisted to do this. It’s difficult sometimes to see beyond the bureaucracy, to the bigger picture that it's creating a better society and more inclusive environment for everyone.”
It’s because of this larger vision - of a country where everyone can access all areas of life, that Sudima chooses to look beyond the bureaucracy, and support the Access Matters campaign and the introduction of accessibility legislation in New Zealand. For Sudima, a law would set clearer standards, and would be the impetus businesses and government to make a wide-reaching, impactful transformation.
Working on creating more accessible businesses is important in order to create a more inclusive society, but from a business perspective, it also makes economic sense. Click-Away Pound is a research survey designed to explore the online shopping experience of people with disabilities and examine the cost to business of ignoring disabled shoppers. The survey found that failing to provide customers with accessible websites cost UK retailers £11.75 billion in 2015.
What this highlights is that people with disabilities are only an isolated group, if we put up or maintain the barriers, and that they contribute to our society and our businesses. It’s about all of us. “Everybody knows someone who has access needs. There are whole groups of people who can't enjoy what I’m able to enjoy. Though when I’m older, I might be in a wheelchair!” laughed Sudesh.
Sudima is just one business striving to be fully accessible to all kiwis. Their actions have had a profound impact on the lives of many. But Sudesh stressed that we still have a way to go. “I would like to see accessibility everywhere in every business, rather than focussing only on what we are doing. There is still a lot to be done.”
Each and every one of us has the opportunity to make our businesses accessible. Change can be made and the time is now, if we choose to accept the challenge.
This is my access story, it is one of many. I'm sharing it because I want a law that puts accessibility at the heart of an inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand.