Welcoming the Disabled Spa-goer

The Royal Caribbean cruise line follows the lead of the ADA accessibility guidelines for land-based facilities, resulting in leading-edge spas that are available for all clients, disabled or otherwise.
The Royal Caribbean cruise line follows the lead of the ADA accessibility guidelines for land-based facilities, resulting in leading-edge spas that are available for all clients, disabled or otherwise.

Liz Henry of San Francisco is an avid spa-goer, despite a chronic pain condition that makes it painful for her to lie face down on a treatment table. “I’m not in a wheelchair, but I have difficulty walking,” she says. “I love spas and go regularly to Kabuki Springs, a day spa in San Francisco. It has a lift to get you past the stairs, and it has an accessible bathroom. The main spa room is big, and the staff is very attentive and always brings you things.”

A sauna and hot tub fan, Henry also enjoys reflexology treatments. “What I like about the staff in another spa”—Natalie Salon in Redwood City, California—”is that there aren’t any jaded therapists,” says Henry. “People ask if you need help, like taking off your socks, and they really listen. They don’t act like it’s a big pain to help,” she says. “Everyone is very positive and helpful. And I like the spas that advertise their accessibility, especially on their websites.”

Bruce Schoenberg knows full well the importance of encouraging the disabled consumer to spend quality time in his spas. “When I first entered the spa industry, I became aware that there were so many kinds of people attracted to spas,” explains Schoenberg, the owner of three Oasis Day Spas in the New York City area. Among them is the disabled community.

“There is a huge range of potential clients, whether they are physically handicapped or not,” says Schoenberg, who has a family member with a disability. “The key is making everyone a future client and making everyone feel welcome.”

Approximately 54 million Americans are disabled—19% of the population—and they have an estimated disposable income of $175 billion. The baby boomer generation (born between 1946–1964), one of the most influential age groups in the country, will soon be adding big numbers to the disabled demographic. Discretionary spending from boomers has understandably attracted the eye of those in the skin care, spa, health, wellness and travel industries. By the age of 65, statistics show, two-thirds of the U.S. population will have at least one chronic disease or physical ailment. As baby boomers age, some will require a wheelchair or other navigational equipment.

There are myriad reasons why it makes sense to have an accessible spa, which is defined as a facility equipped with an elevator, accessible bathroom and shower area, and at least one treatment room with enough door width to allow wheelchairs. New regulations in March 2012 added requirements for public pools, resorts, hotels and spas under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal anti-discrimination statute that became law July 26, 1990.Requirements for compliance include: Exits and entryways need to be physically accommodating for wheelchair or other mobility device use; at least one bathroom, shower and locker facility area must also serve this population; and massage tables should be electrically powered to make it easier for clients to access them. More detailed information about accessibility terms for day spa owners can be found at www.ada.gov/2010ADAstandards_index.htm.

It’s good business

Tax incentives may assist in covering the cost of access improvements and, in some cases, may cover the expense of adding adaptive equipment, producing printed material and providing sign language interpreters. Working with a local tax professional can help you identify whether your facility is eligible for these incentives.

Before he opened his first Oasis spa in 1998 in Manhattan, Schoenberg had many meetings with his architect. “We were grandfathered into some of the ADA regulations,” he says, so he was given a pass on certain modifications. However, instead of taking advantage of the waiver, he made the changes anyway. “I didn’t have to modify certain things, like the widths of doorways and rooms,” he explains. “But I said to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t I modify the spas?’ It could cost me a little more in the short-term, but would prove to be good business in the long-term.”

Schoenberg was concerned about disabled clients when he opened the first spa because it had an outdoor entrance and a marble staircase. Fortunately, he discovered there was an elevator in the building. It was then that he knew he could accommodate people with disabilities. “We get people almost every week that need the elevator,” he says. “They come for a variety of services from body treatments, to skin, hair and nail care. One of our team members brings clients to the elevator and escorts them to where they need to go. These are regular clients who have come to rely on our extraordinary service,” he says. “And the economics of it means it’s just logical to offer accessibility. When clients have positive experiences, they tell their friends.”

Dean Pelton, a regular client with a physical disability, started coming to Oasis when his longtime barber Carmine Fischetti was hired there. “Why do I go to this spa? Honestly, it’s because of Carmine,” he says with a laugh. But it became more than just having his hair cut, he says. “I’m treated properly here and with respect. The staff is wonderful, and I feel safe because they have my best interests and safety at heart.”

Attract the disabled

Laurel Van Horn, the research director of Opendoorsnfp.org, a Chicago-based website specializing in accessible travel, is a world traveler, and encourages the travel and resort industry to pay attention to the needs of the disabled population. An economist who traded academia for a full-time focus on her passion for accessible travel, Van Horn was first motivated while she was in Zambia, Africa. “I began writing for the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, and just became more and more interested in this demographic,” she says. “I grew up around the disabled community; it was just normal for me. I grew up with kids who had polio and were deaf, and it was just the way things were.” Her mission is to educate the travel and spa industries about attracting the disabled. At the same time, she also encourages empowerment and success in the disability community itself.

“It’s not just the seniors or baby boomers,” Van Horn says. “There’s a growth market in war veterans, for example. One thing I noticed about American spas is that they are more geared toward the rich and fit, where in Europe, spas are considered places offering health services, not just pampering.”

One of the simplest ways spas can become more accessible is by having a hydraulic table. “A good sales point is this: It’s also better for therapists who can ensure their posture is comfortable,” Van Horn says. “And for wheelchair users, it’s that much easier to get on the table.” Also, an essential, inexpensive way to inform potential clients is by using the spa’s website to reach out to people with disabilities. This is a great tool to provide information about your accessibility, and to depict someone in a wheelchair on the website is just good business, says Van Horn. By including pictures of adults with disabilities in your promotional materials, you are acknowledging their presence in society and your message is clearly inclusive, she explains.

In some cases, wheelchair users can even stay in their chair for certain treatments, she adds, and video of this can be showcased on your website, as well. “Scalp care, for example, could be done with the client in her own wheelchair.” Many cruise ships are also conscientious about providing accessible treatments. “Cruise ships often have an older clientele, so this industry has been ahead of the curve in providing access to pools, spas and staterooms.”

Examples in accessibility

Ron Pettit, senior specialist, access at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., represents three different lines. Royal Caribbean ships all have spas offering a range of skin care and body treatments, massages, hair and nail care. All of the ships are accessible, Pettit says. Although some of the older vessels may lack conformity to the latest ADA regulations, the newest ships offer up-to-date improvements. Two of the ships—Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas—have some of the largest spas at sea, featuring fully accessible treatment rooms with a roll-in shower. Changing rooms and restrooms are also accessible. These two ships also offer dedicated teen spas, YSpa, which are also wheelchair accessible. The cruise line follows the lead of the ADA accessibility guidelines for land-based facilities.

Another spa with accessibility is the Exhale brand, with 20 spas in the United States, according to Julia Sutton, the company’s chief operating officer. The Exhale organization is only nine-years-old and has designed each spa to be wheelchair-friendly. The latest opening is in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and each spa is compatible with ADA regulations. “Our newest spa is called Revel, and we just had a wonderful encounter with a disabled client there,” Sutton says. “We built the spas to ensure that someone in a wheelchair would be able to get into the treatment rooms. And all of the tables in the Atlantic City location are hydraulic. We have several clients who appreciate how accessible we are,” she states. “We have a blind client and a person with spinal injuries, among others. Exhale is not so much about pampering as it is about healing and transformation, so this is truly why our therapists are in the business: to help heal.”

Larger resort/destination spas have traditionally been accessible, including the Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont properties. “Ritz Carlton spas have been wheelchair accessible for years,” says John Hopp, head of the spa division in North America. “Clients can get onto our hydraulic tables from a relatively low position. Many of our pools are already accessible, and we are reviewing fitness centers for ADA compliance,” he says.

Gadabout SalonSpas in Tucson, Arizona, offer clients accessible hydraulic tables and entryways that accommodate wheelchairs through hallways and to treatment rooms. “We own all of our facilities, so we have adequate access for handicap parking spaces,” explains Megan Jasper, director of marketing and operations. “We live in a community where we service many clients who have special needs and have adapted our spa experience to accommodate anyone.”

Spa Eastman, a health and wellness spa outside Montreal, is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and is dedicated to bringing healing and well-being to all clients. Jocelyna Dubuc, president and founder of the award-winning spa, often sees disabled clients on-site. “We have hydraulic tables and one fully accessible room for clients,” she says. One client, who is wheelchair-bound, was able to enjoy Watsu, a gentle form of body therapy that takes place in warm water. At Spa Eastman, disabled clients are helped into a warm pool by two therapists in swimwear. “He was so tense in the beginning,” Dubuc says. Then, slowly, he unwound and started relaxing. His wife, also a massage therapist, was in the pool, and they both ended up crying. “Happy tears,” Dubuc emphasizes. “That treatment was just ‘wow,’ and it was moving for everyone there. The same client also enjoyed a facial while in his own wheelchair that was able to recline.”

Become more open

Henry, the San Francisco spa-goer, has some constructive comments about how day spas could become more open to the disabled community. “There are many different kinds of accessibility,” she says. “Ramps are fine, but if the bathroom isn’t accessible, what’s the point?” Some spas have relaxation rooms that are anything but to the disabled client. “If the sofas are really low, it’s difficult getting up and down from them. And handrails could be put up a lot more than they are. It would help lots of people,” suggests Henry.

She visits day spas a couple of times each month and recommends the experience to others who are disabled. She also would like to see more disabled people shown in advertising and marketing tools, such as websites, brochures and other kinds of media outreach. “I do think that people who are more impaired than me would definitely appreciate more accessibility,” she says. “The image of what is portrayed is so important to the population ... and I think an image of a disabled person in marketing would be a wonderful way to show the spa’s diversity of clients.”

Naomi Serviss is a freelance entertainment, travel and spa writer who has contributed to a variety of industry magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Newsday and New York Daily News, and websites including www.about.com and www.broadwayworld.com. She resides in Manhattan.

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