Staycations for all: Accommodation in Flanders built for disabilities

Summary

Flanders is home to 26 holiday care centres, where disabled people are catered to for stress-free vacations

Quality labels

In the middle of all the Covid-19 chaos, many people looked to spend their summer holiday close to home. For people with disabilities, the search for appropriate accommodation can be daunting.

It’s essential that accommodation is adjusted to their needs, so they can enjoy their time off without constantly having to overcome obstacles. This summer, many holidaymakers turned to Hotel Middelpunt on the Flemish coast.

Hotel Middelpunt, about 600 metres from the beach at Middelkerke, is very quiet when I pay a visit right after the hottest week on record in Belgium. But it’s of course not the end of the heatwave that caused this unusual stillness.

Designed for accessibility

“Like the whole tourism sector, we are strongly affected by the pandemic,” says Katy Van Ranst, assistant manager at Hotel Middelpunt. “We did profit from the staycation trend, but that does not compensate for all the postponed bookings – not by a long shot.”

While most seaside accommodations this summer had no trouble booking staycationers, Hotel Middelpunt was hit hard. Many of their regular clients are elderly or disabled people, who are at higher risk for complications caused by Covid-19. There was much less travel than usual among these groups.

Founded in 2013, the hotel is one of the 26 recognised holiday care centres in Flanders. These are all outfitted with infrastructure designed for accessibility and a variety of facilities that offer people with a range of impairments and medical needs a care-free holiday.

Hotel Middelpunt come with adjustable beds, wide doorways and zero architectural impediments to movement

“All of our 32 rooms are adapted to crucial needs of people with physical disabilities, with wheelchair users as a very important target group,” explains says Van Ranst. “They all have, for instance, height-adjustable beds, walk-in showers, grab rails, switches and buttons placed lower down the wall and a 24/7 reception paging system.”

Five rooms are high-care rooms that also include ceiling hoists and automatic doors, which open when they detect the key card the guest is carrying.

Hotel Middelpunt asks guests with special medical needs for a care sheet, filled in by their GP. The hotel transfers this info to home health-care associations or physical therapists, who then provide the necessary care.

We try hard not to exude a hospital atmosphere

- Katy Van Ranst of Hotel Middelpunt

Guests can also request specific medical devices, most of which are provided for free. The kitchen prepares meals adjusted to all kinds of dietary requirements.

“We try hard, however, to not exude a hospital atmosphere,” says Van Ranst. “The coronavirus made this all the more difficult, as we had to remove some of the décor. But we still offer two adapted wellness areas, an infrared sauna and tilting bath, for guests to relax. To enjoy their time outdoors, guests can use our wheelchair bikes and beach wheelchairs, while we can also offer them a ride in an accessible carriage.”

Hotel Middelpunt also employs people with disabilities or psychosocial challenges. The hotel was founded as a kind of social co-op by Mariasteen, part of the non-profit Groep Gidts, and was originally meant as a holiday destination for its staff.

Open to anyone

But it gradually developed into a three-star hotel for the general public. “We also appeal to people without disabilities, who quickly realise how accessibility also improves their experience,” stresses Van Ranst. “We are completely inclusive.”

Care hotels such as Middelpunt are a relatively recent phenomenon in Flanders. “About 10 years ago, there were just about four holiday care hotels and those looked very much like medical centres,” says Katrien Mampaey, head of the accessibility department at Visit Flanders, the Flemish government’s tourist agency.

Thanks to a subsidy policy, “their numbers and diversity have increased significantly,” she says. “We are also supporting them with corona compensation premiums, so the crisis doesn’t wipe out all the progress we have made.”


To improve the accessibility of the holiday accommodation scene in general, Visit Flanders set up a subsidy policy about two decades ago. Any holiday accommodation could apply for funding to improve structure accessibility.

A system with two accessibility labels, A and A+, was introduced in 2007. “Accommodations with an A+ label allow disabled people to get around on their own about as well as they can at their own home,” explains Mampaey. “In places with an A label, guests might still be faced with minor challenges for which they require help, like a door that is a little too heavy.”

Any accommodation can apply for the label, which is separate from the 26 official holiday care centres. There are currently 232 accommodations with an A label and 76 with an A+ label in Flanders. They are gathered together on the Visit Flanders website in multiple languages, because this information is also crucial for visitors from abroad.

We’d like offer the option of planning all aspects of their trip with an expert

- Katrien Mampaey of Visit Flanders

Current accessibility criteria focuses predominantly on wheelchair users and less on people with, say, visual or hearing impairments. “We are in the process of expanding the criteria for our labels, to better meet the needs of all these different target groups, also for people with autism,” explains Mampaey. “We are consulting the organisations that represent these groups and will launch the updated version of the system as soon as possible.”

People with a visual impairment would benefit from signs in braille and so-called guidance strips, textured floor strips that help them find their way. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing, there should be fire alarm systems that use light signals. For people with autism, it’s important to avoid too many bright colours and echoing sounds. 

While Visit Flanders already offers much info online and distributes all kinds of brochures, the agency wants to go a step further by establishing a co-ordinating info point that will function as a one-stop-shop for tourists who have special needs.

“We’d like offer the option of planning all aspects of their trip with an expert,” says Mampaey. “Everyone has very different needs, and we really want to provide customised advice.”

Misconceptions

This whole part of Flanders’ tourism policy relies on the expertise of Inter, a government-funded advisory body specialised in accessibility and universal design. Inter is a crucial partner for Visit Flanders and also provides direct support to proprietors of holiday centres. It works in close collaboration with organisations that represent people with disabilities.

“Unfortunately, too many owners of accommodations still believe that making their place accessible will also make it less appealing and more costly,” says Inter’s director Wendy Metten. “But that is not the case, especially when you take this concept into account from the beginning of the construction or design. You will also make the space more comfortable for all your guests. A ramp, for example, is not only useful for wheelchair users, but also for people pushing a stroller or transporting heavy suitcases.”

Wellness centre at the Middelpunt Hotel

Metten stresses that accessibility not only revolves around infrastructure, but also the customer experience and customer service. Inter offers trainings on how to make tourists with a disability feel welcome. “For example It’s very important to not help somebody without asking them if they actually want your assistance.”

She emphasises that accessible accommodation is not the only answer to opening up holidays to people with disabilities. They also have to get there and to explore the environment outside the holiday stay.

“The overarching goal is to make our whole society as accessible as possible,” she says. “For that, we need more co-operation among diverse sectors and among decision-makers across policy areas.”

Photos courtesy Middelpunt Hotel