Making life easier for the disabled: What Singapore can learn from Sweden

Mr Magnus Berglund, who has rheumatism, persuaded the Scandic group to improve its accessibility.
Mr Magnus Berglund, who has rheumatism, persuaded the Scandic group to improve its accessibility.

Singapore's third, five-year Enabling Masterplan - to guide the development of policies and services for people with disabilities - is being drawn up and is expected to be ready by next year. Priscilla Goyvisited Stockholm in May to see what can be learnt from the Swedes.

At Scandic Hotels in Stockholm, some rooms have two door peepholes - one is at standing height and the other is at sitting level .

TV remote controls are placed on the bedside table, rather than on top of the TV sets. In the restaurants, cups are not placed on high shelves. An able-bodied guest is unlikely to notice, but these are some of the accessibility features for guests using wheelchairs.

Scandic's accessibility ambassador Magnus Berglund told The Straits Times: "All the improvements we're making don't just benefit guests with disabilities. Comforts, such as remote controls, were originally designed to help the disabled, but that doesn't stop everyone else from being able to benefit."

Other efforts to serve guests with special needs include giving hotel factsheets in Braille for those who are blind and vibrating alarm clocks, which can also function as fire alarms, for guests who are deaf.

The Sweden-based hotel chain has won several international awards for its accessibility work. Scandic is believed to be the first hotel chain in the world to have accessibility information on each of its 230 hotels in seven European countries on the hotels' respective websites.

It also has an "accessibility standard" online - a list of building and room features that should be available for people with special needs.

The list of 135 points covers every aspect of a hotel - from the parking area and lobby reception, to meeting rooms and guest rooms.

Ninety of the 135 points are mandatory for all hotels; new or renovated hotels must meet all 135 points. At least 10 per cent of the rooms in new hotels must be "accessible rooms".

In 2013, Scandic also became the first hotel chain to offer an interactive online course with advice and quizzes on how to provide the best service to guests with special needs.

Anyone can view the half-hour free video online. Tips include how to present food to guests who are blind: staff are advised to use the clock reference system when describing where the food is on a plate.

Said Mr Berglund: "Improving accessibility is not always about investing in the building. Many times, it's the small things in our service to guests that make a big difference."

He worked at Scandic as a chef, before being diagnosed in 1998 with rheumatism, which affects his muscles and joints.

After five years of medical leave, he returned to Scandic and persuaded the group to improve accessibility, as it made good business sense.

"We've seen people book our hotels for conferences because of the accessibility. One wheelchair user can influence the venue choice for 400 other delegates," he said.

The potential market of travellers with disabilities is large. About a billion people, or 15 per cent of the world's population, have a disability. Travel publisher Lonely Planet launched an e-book of resources on accessible travel in January.

Mr Abhimanyau Pal, executive director of SPD which helps people with disabilities in Singapore, said the accessible tourism market is growing. "With the elderly being more affluent and well-travelled, it could be a viable business proposition to... cater to the needs of these holidaymakers," he said.

In Singapore, new hotels and those undergoing major renovations must have one accessible room for every 100 rooms, and one in every 50 rooms should have elderly-friendly features such as grab bars in toilets.

But Disabled People's Association executive director Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills said the number of accessible rooms is "still too low".

A check on the Building and Construction Authority's Our Friendly Built Environment Portal found that only eight hotels and resorts have a four- or five-star rating for "(user-)friendliness level".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2016, with the headline 'Hotels: Features for disabled benefit all'. Print Edition | Subscribe