Spa Management: Disability Accessibility

Providing accessibility for disabled clients isn’t just the law—it’s also a life-changer.

Getty Images/Simone Becchetti

Twelve years ago, a woman sailed through a stop sign, broadsiding my car and leaving me instantly disabled. My doctor insisted that I was lucky—that only my 20 years of martial arts training helped me to stagger away from my crumpled RAV4. But, when I walked, I resembled Tim Conway’s ‘60s classic “Little Old Man” character from TV’s The Carol Burnett Show. As the days passed, the pain of surviving grew so unbearable that sometimes the alternative seemed preferable. Yet, my fighting spirit prevailed; I wanted to get back to life.

I’d always looked forward to my monthly haircut and massage, and pinned high hopes on what a spa visit could do for me in my quasi-broken state. My regular spa/salon was situated in a renovated old house, which posed challenges for me from the outset. Just opening the old oak door hurt like hell. Once inside, I was unable to navigate the slippery wooden floor, and had to call to my stylist for help. Gripping his arm, I inched toward the shampoo bowl, but was unable to lean my head back without severe pain. Instead, we shuffled to his chair so he could dry-cut my hair. The massage never did happen: I couldn’t trust my bruised shoulders to safely boost me onto the table. Later that night, I realized that my stylist and the massage therapist had both seemed uncomfortable dealing with me—and I felt shattered all over again.

Even though my body has since mostly recovered from that accident, I’ll never forget the years during which my life was a series of obstacles. The physical barriers were awful, but it was the attitudinal ones—from service providers, strangers, and even friends and family—that cut deepest.

Between 37 and 54 million people in today’s United States live with a disability. Those numbers will increase as the population ages. And let’s not forget that anyone could suddenly find him- or herself disabled as the result of accident, illness or military combat. No business would deliberately exclude 12% to 19% of its potential customers, but that’s what happens when people with disabilities are unable to use a day spa’s facilities or services.
Are you doing all you can to welcome these clients into your day spa? Read on to find out.

According to Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law on July 26, 1990, is a self-described “Federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities” that “opens doors for full participation in all aspects of everyday life.” By legal definition, disabilities can be visible, hidden, permanent or temporary, and they include, but are not limited to, conditions affecting a person’s physical and motor skills, hearing, vision or cognition. Title III of the ADA addresses public accommodations and applies to day spas and salons. It states:

The goal is to afford every individual the opportunity to benefit from our country’s businesses and services, and to afford our businesses and services the opportunity to benefit from the patronage of all Americans.

Many owners whose businesses are housed in older buildings assume that they’re “grandfathered” in, and therefore exempt from ADA requirements, but this is not so, notes Brandon Smith, principal of D’Scoop, a spatial design company in San Diego. As Smith explains, the ADA requires that businesses remove architectural barriers in existing facilities when doing so is “readily achievable,” or “easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense.”

While compliance may be easier for large businesses, small operations should also consider steps they can take to make their spaces more accessible to people with disabilities. Jim Root, CEO and president of Glen Ivy Hot Springs in California, suggests, “Get in a wheelchair, go onto your property, and see what it feels like. Inadequate design and potential solutions jump right out.”

Creating Access

For Missi Koebler, owner of Secrets of Hairdesign & Day Spa in Butler, Pennsylvania, accessibility means more than just ensuring that a wheelchair can get through a door. “If it’s difficult for a disabled client to navigate throughout your building once inside, that is also a form of inaccessibility,” says Koebler, who opened her day spa 10 years ago. “Where I previously worked, it was difficult for people in wheelchairs to get around. I wanted to change that.”

At Secrets, Koebler has incorporated custom touches to ensure that her spa’s services are fully accessible. “Our sinks are lower, so you can use them from a wheelchair. The chairs in front of the stations move, so a client doesn’t have to get out of her wheelchair. Our restroom is wheelchair-accessible. And, we help our clients onto the massage table if they need it.”

Brittnee Hammonds, creative director at Secrets, counters the myth that accessible spaces have all the ambiance of a hospital corridor. “So-called ‘open’ spas can equal an inviting space,” Hammonds insists. “At our day spa, guests don’t have to squeeze themselves between hallways, and there’s no feeling of confinement anywhere.”

In planning her new facility, Koebler worked with the building’s landlord and selected builders with ADA expertise. “I also chose the first floor of the building
because some of my clients had issues with stairs—older people make up a significant percentage of our client base.” For Koebler, accessibility isn’t just
business, it’s personal. “My mom uses a wheelchair, and going to the salon is one thing she really looks forward to. I want that to be possible for her and everyone else.”

When Kari Fenelon and Ray McCoy sought to relocate their spa, Fenelon Sanctuary, to a quiet residential area in St. Paul, Minnesota, they were pleased to find a charming older home with something extra: a wheelchair ramp! “The previous owner’s daughter was paraplegic, so they’d already built the ramp,” McCoy explains. Adds Fenelon, “It has worked well for our clients in wheelchairs and walkers.”

Although Fenelon’s treatment rooms are on the second floor, to which there’s no elevator access, the owners adapt when serving disabled clients: They
carry a massage table down to the first floor, move some furniture and put up curtains to afford privacy. As McCoy points out, “Many who are disabled don’t get massages, and they may need them the most.” The owners’ next planned project is to build an accessible restroom on the first floor. “We’re very small so technically, we don’t have to do this—but we want to do this,” says Fenelon.

Fenelon and McCoy assist clients who need help getting on and off treatment tables, but Fenelon notes that “The only prerequisite is they can’t be too shy
when it comes to draping!” They’re hoping to soon purchase a hydraulic massage table to make things easier for everyone. “This is a case in which an accessibility modification also can help those who are not disabled,” says McCoy.

How to Modify

A building that is 200-plus years old—and a noted historic structure—presents extra challenges when it comes to modification. Yet, when Sara Daly was invited to open Waterfalls Day Spa at the Middlebury Inn in Middlebury, Vermont, she jumped at the chance. “There were barriers we couldn’t change, based on the building’s structure,” Daly admits, “but [the owners] worked with us to make the spa happen.” The contractor she hired also happened to be her client.

“I was a clinical physical therapist for 13 years, and he was a patient who’d had a horrific accident and become disabled. He understood firsthand about accessibility, and had done enough residential and commercial construction that he knew the guidelines.”

For Daly, accessibility and aesthetic appeal go hand-in-hand. “We have a minimalist décor—no scattered rugs or other things people could trip over.”

Waterfalls’ three treatment rooms are separated by pocket doors, which open into a bigger space. “I have a man with cerebral palsy in a power chair. He can get through the door, but then, to accommodate a good turning radius and help him get transferred to the table, I open the pocket doors.”

Staff training is imperative when it comes to serving clients with disabilities. “It has to start at the front desk,” insists Daly. “My staff is comfortable around persons with disabilities. We discuss all kinds of scenarios: people on crutches, in wheelchairs, and using canes or walkers. Then we problem-solve.” She recommends bringing in a medical professional, such as a physical therapist, to assist with training.

Her final advice for day spa owners considering accessibility: “Don’t assume there’s nothing you can do, or that modification is too expensive. Find out whether there’s a grant available. As wellness professionals, we need to stay super-informed about these issues.”

Enlisting the Right Help

The approach to building or modifying your space will vary, depending on whether you hire a spatial planner, architect, building contractor or similar professional. “Whatever you do,” advises D’Scoop’s Smith, “don’t just automatically hire friends or relatives! You want a professional who’s well-versed in ADA.” You can locate them through networking, professional organizations or web searches. “Make sure the people you hire have worked on spaces that are similar to yours; ask to see the work they’ve done,” Smith advises.

In conducting an initial assessment for accessibility, Smith first lists every possible ADA inconsistency and focuses on barrier removal. “Ensure that the path of travel from your parking spaces to the entrance of your building is compliant—that will have the greatest impact. Also, make sure you have clear aisles. That’s Retail 101!”

There’s also work to do before you meet with an ADA consultant. “Knowing what you want to spend makes it easier to determine what type of solution will work best. It might just be a case of adding a ramp.” Smith also warns prospective clients to be prepared to answer many questions, such as, “Where do clients change clothes?” and “Who owns your building?” After all, he says, “You may not be the only decision-maker when it comes to your facility.”

John McGrann, senior architect at Baskervill in Richmond, Virginia, recommends collaborating with professionals who understand assessment, design and construction. “Ideally, have both an architect and a contractor: The architect can provide the design work and the planning; the contractor will have a better idea of cost or how to go about accomplishing a modification.

“Most states require continuing education for architectural license renewal, and architects who maintain a membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are held to an even higher standard,” McGrann continues. “Ask professionals whether they’ve recently completed training on accessibility and local building code requirements.”

Making your space accessible benefits your clients, your employees and you. Beyond that, “It makes us more empathic and authentic,” says Glen Ivy’s Root. “It pays dividends far beyond any compliance issues.”