Embrace the Inclusive Spirit

20th February 2024, Titanic Belfast
Nicki Darnbrook

The all day seminar was a partnership initiative developed by Belfast City Council and supported by Tourism Northern Ireland, Visit Belfast, Titanic Belfast and Open Arts. It was free to attend and concentrated on how welcoming disabled visitors makes business sense. Disability rights activist Seán Fitzsimmons hosted the morning seminar and guest speakers included Irish writer, educator, disability activist and director of Tilting the Lens, Sinéad Burke, Mary Jo McCanny from Visit Belfast and Amy Walmsley from AcessAble. The afternoon session was drop-in with a marketplace format and workshops led by some of the guest speakers.


The event was opened by the Lord Mayor who launched the Belfast City Council’s ‘Embrace the Inclusive Spirit’ toolkit at the event. This free resource supports tourism providers and services to put inclusivity at the heart of their business. – Make Yourself at Home: Inclusive tourism training (belfastcity.gov.uk). Resources include:

  • Welcoming tourists with disabilities
  • Communication with disabled customers
  • Resources for accessible communications
  • Captions for a live performance
  • Accessibility guide for your business
  • Just a minute cards
  • Embrace the Inclusive Spirit – Inclusive Tourism Programme
  • Videos on confident communication
  • Sign Language interpreters
  • Audio describers
  • Web accessibility

Sinead Burke, Tilting the Lens

Sinead spoke about her experiences of living with a disability and how society can change to ensure inclusion but change needs to be systemic and collective.

Key Points:
  • A baseline of understanding needs to be set but although building compliance must always be considered when designing accessible accommodation, it needs to go further to include all accessibility aspects eg housekeeping (eg showers, towel rails, tea/coffee facilities).
  • What does ‘fully accessible’ mean? Everyone has different needs so this needs to be considered when initially planning and developing accessible facilities.
  • Defining accessibilitya continuous and evolving practice. Accessibility is achieved through intentional, meaningful and intersectional participation of people with lived experience of exclusion. Accessibility must be key to each stage of a product, place, performance of policy development from ideation through to execution. Solutions must be designed with Disabled people to prioritise from and function. Meaningful and deliberate accessibility builds inclusion, equity, agency, creativity, innovation and pride.
  • Bathrooms are designed for disabled people, but not by disabled people – so can be functional but unattractive. Innovate, accessible design can be functional and beautiful at the same time.
  • Accessibility in practice – a video interview on Gucci’s Aira partnership was shown with Sinead Burke and Ginny Owens (a blind author/singer/ songwriter) inside a Gucci store. Aira is a sole commercially embraced solution that connects blind and low vision individuals with certified Visual Interpreters through a mobile app.
  • Accessibility in practice: Retail eg Starbucks is committing to design, test and scale more inclusive design standards and experiences across its store portfolio, starting in the US and then expanding standards globally, with the goal of ensuring that physical and digital Starbucks environments will meet an elevated standard of accessibility by 2030.
  • Equip yourself with the question: “Is this accessible?”
  • Accessibility must be treated as an investment, not a cost.

Following her early morning tour around the Titanic Museum, Siobhan highlighted a quote that could be related to disability and how perceptions and actions can easily be changed by managers and leaders – “the disaster of the Titanic did not happen at sea, it happened in the boardroom”

Eimear Callaghan, Tourism Northern Ireland
What is the City doing?

The draft Tourism Strategy was highlighted –  Strategic Themes being Inclusive, Innovative, Sustainability, Collaborative and Attractive. 

Key Points:
  • In NI, around 1 in 5 say they have additional needs with over half (58%) specifying mobility issues.
    • 18% describe themselves as having disability, mobility or accessibility needs.
    • 10% say they travel with someone who has disability, mobility or accessibility needs.
  • Two thirds of people with a disability (or who travel with someone who does) say they look for accessibility information.
    • 30% don’t find useful accessibility information when researching accommodation in NI.
  • Most important features when booking a holiday or short break:
    • Re accommodation – accessible bedroom with level shower (42%) and accessible car parking/drop off (41%).
    • Re attraction –  access car parking/drop off (38%), staff trained in disability awareness (27%) and accessible toilet provision (26%).
  • Response is based on the TNI Internal Working Group output around Research, Build Industry Capacity and Welcome our Visitors.
  • Currently in progress – an industry survey is being circulated this month, a dedicated online hub available at tourismni.com, the AccessAble Project and the partnership with Disability Action for internal team training, Inclusive and Accessible Tourism Guide and Industry Checklists.
  • Coming soon – ‘MyTourismNI’ E learning modules on Inclusive and Accessible Tourism and Training for Tourism Industry across NI.
  • Now Live – the Tour Guiding for Deaf People course for Group 1.
Mary Jo McCanny, Visit Belfast
What is Visit Belfast Doing?

The Visit Belfast 3 Year Strategy 2024-2027 will be launched next month and aligns with the BCC Make Yourself at Home 10 Year Tourism Strategy. The focus is on building tourism in a sustainable way. Accessibility for all, to tourism facilities, products and services, should be a central part of any responsible and sustainable tourism policy…It is a business opportunity for destinations and companies to embrace all visitors and enhance their revenues. The New Business Plan 2024-27 Key Themes are Sustainability, Accessible and Inclusive and Neighbourhood Tourism.

Visit Belfast have launched 3 new Accessible & Inclusive Belfast Itineraries which can be accessed HERE.

Key Points:
  • 770,000 enquiries (via Welcome Centre, Airport Desk and Cruise Hub) – creating positive first and last impressions, adaptable spaces and training and new approaches eg live chat.
  • Low level desks, audio loops, refresher training for front of house teams including accessibility training and living library workshops.
  • Communication is important – web and digital, New Business Tourism website, training and materials, NEW digital guide, messaging. 
  • The three areas that deliver for the city are Cruise and Travel ships (all fully accessible including excursions), Conference Events and Festivals and Culture and Arts (eg Science Festival). In 2023 there were:
    • 2.3m web visits and 2.9m social media engagements.
    • 326,000 cruise guests and 159 ships in 2023.
    • 89 conferences, 23,600 delegates and 61,000 bednights.
  • Three things need to be considered when planning accessible facilities – Information (how can a disabled person find out about a space before they use it?), Welcome (how is a disabled person supported on arrival?) and Space (how can the space be more inclusive?)

Amy Walmsley, AccessAble

All access needs are different so information is important. 98% of disabled people look for information before visiting somewhere.

Key Points:
  • The website has over 6 Million Unique Users, over 450 Partners (Public and Private Sector Clients) and over 125,000 venues surveyed so far…
  • Work with Belfast City Council has included the launch of the Accessibility Guide in 2006, 300 detailed Access Guides to venues across the City, 27,843 users of Belfast’s Guides in the last 12 months and in 2024 the partnership with BCC is to focus on leisure and tourism venues, to ensure a well rounded Accessibility Guide for both disabled residents and tourists to the City.
  • A video of a wheelchair user was shown to highlight the issues of a wheelchair user and the importance of Access Guides.
  • On the Accessibility Guide portal on the AccessAble website it is possible to search for accessible places to go and to see what accessible facilities particular venues have, with relevant photos. The portal is AccessAble’s solution to help businesses and venues provide the vital accessibility information disabled people and carers have told them they need. The portal will be launched within the next month. 

About Detailed Access Guides

These are in-depth descriptions of a place or space. It describes each part of the customer journey from arriving at the venue, to getting in, getting around and then everything that place, or space, has to offer.  The aim is to give anyone who needs to know more about accessibility  – disabled people, carers and those with long term health conditions  the information – the information to decide if a place or space will work for them. They are published on www.AccessAble.co.uk. There are two ways to join the service – a Guided Assessment or an On Site assessment.

Judith Owens, Titanic Belfast
What Can Businesses Do?

Judith Owens discussed how to engage inclusive audiences cost effectively by acknowledging that inclusion is an important part of managing anywhere, from recruitment to managing the team to providing the actual service to guests.

Key Points
  • Some of the Titanic inclusive strategies are an accessible changing room which matches the rest of the Titanic facilities, BSL sign language interactive guides, audio encrypted interactive guides, training and partnerships with external agencies such as Orchardville, NOW, Autism NI etc.
  • Two new types of training are being provided this year – diversity and disability awareness with a new member of staff being appointed to oversee this training.
  • It is important to tell people that you are accessible before they arrive so that they can choose before they come.
  • Their Disability Forum is being revised this year to include a more diverse membership.
  • The blue band scheme (for children or anyone with special needs) ensures that users can be fast tracked at queues or receive one-to-one assistance.
  • Accessible facilities available at Titanic include quiet spaces, ear defenders, audio descriptions instead of physical tours, time out areas, sensory trails, Titanic staff to act as companions to assist if required.

Bobby Blair, Crumlin Road Gaol Visitor Attraction

“Being a Grade A-Listed building should not be the end of the conversation, it should be the beginning” 

Crumlin Road Gaol have been working on their accessibility project with other local businesses including Hamilton Robson (software and hardware), Flex Language Services (audio/text translations), Jordanstown Deaf and Blind School (sign language translation), Eclipse Sound and Lighting (audio recording) and Moffy Designs (BSL video recording and banding).

Key Points:
  • Devices – during the development stage, they used physical devices for audio guides instead of a downloadable app to stop the need for strong WIFI throughout the tour route and to prevent any financial discrimination as not all customers have access to a smartphone.
  • Script – this had to be updated to suit the audio guides, with all information boards and signages added to ensure everything was available in all languages. Zones are used to facilitate usage of the guides.
  • Audio Guides – translators for French, German, Spanish and Mandarin to include text translation and audio recording. Interactive holograms and videos are used throughout the site to benefit customers who struggle to hear or had a preference to read text.
  • Sign Language Guides – a former pupil of the Jordanstown Deaf and Blind School (who now works there) was able to provide a unique point of view and ensure the video guide met the needs of Deaf visitors. Since the launch of the BSL guide there has been an increase in visitors from the deaf community with positive feedback received.
  • UK IT Industry Awards – since launching in April 2023, the guides have given much needed support for non-English speakers and member of the Deaf community and this was recognised in November 2023 when the guides won ‘Accessible Technology Innovation of the Year’ at the UK IT Industry Awards.
  • Wheelchair Access – the Gaol is almost fully wheelchair accessible although the entrance to the Tunnel could not be changed. However there is a video outside the tunnel to show customers unable to use the steps what the area is like.
  • Future – new technologies and enhancements are being explored to continue to improve accessibility.

Mark Rice, Belfast Metropolitan College

The new Level 2 Tour Guiding for the Deaf Community course has been launched and is currently running. A collaborative approach has been taken with Belfast Met delivering the course, Tourism NI funding it, Visit Belfast hosting it and Belfast City Council advising and marketing it. 

Key Points:
  • Multiple challenges in developing the course (including decisions on who to deliver, contents, risk assessment and the delivery team) but it is now successfully in place. 
  • It is a 6 week course delivered in Belfast City Centre with 8 participants. The course commenced 3rd February and will conclude on 9th March.
  • Embrace – The Challenge, Your Fears, Change and The Future.

Ross Calladine, Visit England and Government appointed Disability and Access Ambassador for Tourism
The Value and Importance of Accessible Tourism for Belfast

Ross is agreeable to visiting organisations to provide practical tips on making their business more accessible. He led a standing exercise with conference attendees to emphasise that disability touches everyone’s lives and that many disabilities are unseen. 

Visit England have developed a comprehensive set of resources, which are available HERE. These resources include guides, Top 20 tips (by sector) and actions plans. Topics covered include:

  • Customer groups and how to remove barriers.
  • How to provide an inclusive welcome with integrity and empathy at its heart.
  • The availability of inclusive features and facilities (whether physical, digital or operational).
  • How to market your accessibility to potential and existing customers.
  • How to become a more inclusive employer and create an inclusive internal culture within your business.
  • Measuring success and ensuring accessibility journey accountability.
  • The support bodies, influencers, awards and schemes to help you best communicate and celebrate your accessibility.
Key Points
  • The National Tourism Agency is a non departmental public body funded by the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
  • Visit England has a key role in facilitating an accessible and inclusive tourism industry.
  • The Government Tourism Recovery Plan includes the ambition for the UK to become the most accessible tourism destination in Europe by 2025. A key measure of this will be to increase inbound visits by disabled people by 33%.
  • Who are we talking about? 1 in 4 of the UK population is disabled, which may affect where they choose to stay or visit. Only 7% of disabled people are wheelchair users. Others who have accessibility requirements include people with sight loss, physical or mobility impairment, hearing loss and deaf people, learning difficulty or intellectual disability, dementia, mental health condition, families with young children, social/communication impairment/neurodivergent people, older people, people with dietary requirements, long-term illness/health conditions and others!
  • Each impairment has a different level of impact on accommodation choices from full time wheelchair users to those with mental health conditions.
  • Unique requirements include:
    • when travelling with health conditions, considerations are complex and multi-faceted, 
    • each disabled individual has typically two conditions, 
    • the average trip party has two to three different conditions to consider, 
    • people with the same impairments often have different accessibility requirements,
    • therefore requirements for each booking from this audience are unique.
  • On average, a person will spend 8 years disabled in their lifetime.
  • The Accessible Tourist Profile:
    • Influenced by previous bad travel experiences,
    • Sceptical when something is described as ‘accessible’
    • Anxious that their accessibility needs will not be met,
    • Impacted by the least accessible part of the trip,
    • Loyal to companies who meet their accessibility requirements.
  • Why is this relevant to tourism destinations and businesses? Leaving out 16% of the world’s population should be considered a material risk to all businesses. £14.6B was spent by those with an impairment and their travelling companions July 2022-July 2023.
  • Building the 3 R’s:
    • Revenue – a valuable market, attracting the spend of someone with accessibility requirements attracts to spend of their entire travelling party, which can really help build your revenue.
    • Resilience – loyal and repeat customers who stay longer spend more, extend your trading season, being accessible can help rebuild business after the Covid pandemic and build your businesses resilience.
    • Reputation – understanding customers individual needs and focussing on customer service will get your customers talking positively about you, helping to build a strong reputation.
  • 1 in 4 return to accommodation they visited before – either because it has the specialist facilities needed and/or it removes the stress and effort of trying to find somewhere different.
  • Accessibility is an opportunity not just a responsibility. Stay legal, make more money and feel good by doing the right thing,
  • Tourism experiences that can be enjoyed by people with physical, sensory and cognitive impairments and others with accessibility requirements.
  • Three Pillars of Accessible Tourism:
    • Customer (customer welcome and interaction), Place (built environment, amenities and services), Information (information, marketing and digital inclusion) PLUS
    • Employment (of disabled people), Public Realm and Transport
  • Information is key:
    • Booking/planning journey is driven by researching facts and opinion to inform a personal choice on suitability.
    • Describe accessibility factually to empower customers to make personal choices on holiday suitability.
    • Our research shows that to save time and energy when researching a trip, people with accessibility requirements want  – the ability to shortlist places to stay and visit based on key accessibility features and be able to view a Detailed Access Guide to make their final decision.
    • VE is undertaking two initiatives to improve the holiday planning experience for visitors with accessibility requirements. “Dont tell me what i want, tell me what you have and I’ll make my decision” and “If I don’t know, I don’t go”.
  • Key Accessibility Features:
    • Developing new questionnaires listing key accessibility features at tourism venues.
    • Informed by new consumer research with disabled travellers.
    • Steering Group includes Tourism NI.
    • Tourism businesses: identify the key accessibility features in their business and list these on their websites.
    • Tourism listing websites – gather data from venues, display on venue listings and provide the ability to filter venues by key accessibility feature.
    • Anticipate the questionnaires will be available Summer 2024.
    • Should also include a link to an AccessAble Detailed Access Guide where possible.
  • Accessibility Guides (a customer facing online guide that details the accessibility of a tourism venue so that people with accessibility requirements can make an informed decision as to whether it will meet their individual requirements:
    • VisitEngland is joining forces with AccessAble, a leader in quality accessibility information provision.
    • During forward the provision of robust, publicly available Detailed Access Guides for tourism venues across England
    • From February 2024, new AccessAble portal to book either a Guided Assessment or On-Site Assessment:
    • A professional access surveyor will create a quality-assured Detailed Access Guide.
    • All guides will be searchable on AccessAble’s website, used by 6 million people a year and businesses receive an Access Improvement Report.
  • Local Good Practice:
    • Titanic Belfast – emphasis on training (Autism NI and Alzheimers Society, deaf awareness and disability awareness, vision awareness training and neurodiversity training).
    • Tropical Ravine and Palm House – Sign Language videos, level access throughout Victorian building, tactile signage.
    • The Crescent – BSL, captioning and audio description for live events. Changing Places Toilet, hearing loops.
    • Maldron Hotel Belfast City – accessibility information  (Mobility Mojo), Accessible Rooms available as inter-connecting rooms (bookable room-type?).
    • Crumlin Road Gaol – Carers free entry, audio and video guides, wheelchair loan.

The morning seminar finished with lunch and live entertainment from the Open Arts Community Choir, followed by workshops and drop in stands in a marketplace format in the afternoon.