Everyone should feel included and welcome in your celebrations, but all too often venue accessibility is a barrier to those with mobility problems
Sometimes, the stars align. I was a couple of weeks into researching this article without having made much progress, when a message from a reader popped up on my screen: Fife bride-to-be Lauren Gallacher was struggling to find a venue that was accessible for her wheelchair-using father. Could we help? I got in touch immediately.
What she had discovered so far was pretty disappointing. “The search has been difficult,” she told me. “Few places give details about accessibility on their website or in their brochure, and I’ve found that many aren’t as disabled-friendly as they claim to be. At some venues, the only suitable entrance has been via the kitchen or the fire escape, which I think is just unacceptable in terms of health and safety.”
I was surprised. Access is such a basic requirement – how could it be proving so difficult for Lauren to find what she needed? Still, the picture isn’t entirely gloomy: there are proactive venues out there, but the power is also in your hands. Pay a visit and ask the right questions and you’ll land yourself an inclusive location.
A scroll online solves most planning conundrums, but this is not one of those instances: there’s no substitute for going out and seeing things in the flesh. “My advice would be to go and see venues in person, so you can decide which ones actually meet your needs,” urges Lauren.
It’s a recommendation that echoes around the industry. “Start by visiting venues to assess the logistics for yourself,” says Grant Manson at the Waterside Hotel in Inverness. “Compliance to ensure all hotels offer the same type of access is not one-size-fits-all quite yet unfortunately, so ensuring the venue can cater to you is really important.”
Leave your preconceptions at the door and take a mental journey through your big day at the venue; if it’s you or your partner that you’re keeping in mind, it will quickly become apparent where the issues lie; and if it’s a guest who requires special consideration, putting yourself in their shoes will be invaluable. “From the entrance to the reception rooms, to the dinner and dancing, look around and identify any obstacles, such as steps and staircases,” says Katherine Taylor, wedding co-ordinator at the Principal Edinburgh George Street.
“You’ll need to weigh up whether there’s an easy route into the venue, a ground-floor bedroom if it’s a hotel and enough space in the function suite for a wheelchair,” suggests Johanna Van Houdt at Cringletie House. The Peebles country-house hotel has the highest Visit Scotland mobility award and won the Catey Award for best accessible hotel, so we’re happy to take her word for it.
You might worry about bombarding the co-ordinator with queries, but this is your chance to be upfront and exhaust all the worst-case scenarios pinballing through your brain – and it’s much better to do so now, rather than further down the line after the deposit has been paid. “Ask plenty of questions,” recommends Johanna. “Is it possible to enter the building using a wheelchair? Is the bedroom entrance door wide enough for a chair? Is the bathroom suitable – does it have a walk-in shower and grab rails, for example?”
“Always ask about the public bathrooms too!” stresses Katharine. “We have an accessible toilet on ground-floor level, as well as an additional cloakroom on the lower ground with lift access.”
Ah, yes – lift access. Be prepared for the news that not every venue will have a lift. For some, it’s simply not an option – particular types of historic, listed building, for instance, cannot make the kind of alterations necessary to install one.
“Asking if there’s a lift is probably the most common and obvious question,” points out Grant. “People expect hotels with three stars and above to have one as standard, but the age of the building or the planning restrictions imposed upon it may well mean there is not a lift available to all rooms. We don’t have one at present and are limited to offering ground-floor accommodation.”
No matter where you opt to tie the knot, it’s imperative to have a strategy in place, starting with the service itself. Lean on your co-ordinator’s experience.
“Think about seating,” says Katherine. “Make sure that everyone can access their spot quickly and easily. If you have invited a guest with mobility issues, let your venue know in advance so that sufficient space can be left. Our layout can be flexible with, say, rows of five chairs on each side rather than the usual six to make the aisle more accessible. We’ll be fastidious and check there are no chairs obstructing the path of a person in a wheelchair.”
And what if it’s you (or your partner in crime) that has a disability – how will you make your entrance? “In style!” laughs Grant. “The couple usually have an idea of how they would like to arrive at their ceremony and, with a bit of planning, it can be wonderful. Perhaps you’d like to have the service conducted and observed from your seat? Or how about decorating your motorised scooter?” Anything is possible.
There are more practical considerations too. “If getting down the aisle will take a bit of time, double-check that the piece of music you’ve chosen for your entrance will be long enough,” advises Katherine. “We could even run a rehearsal if necessary.”
Hosting the full day in the one venue can cut out the organisational headaches, especially the complex travel arrangements. “In our experience, having the wedding under one roof is very successful,” offers Grant. “You don’t have to bother about transporting guests, which can be tiring and stressful for them. And with the ceremony and the reception in one place, you only have to deal with one co-ordinator.”
A variety of rooms, function suites and ceremony areas will give you the greatest flexibility when more access than usual is required. “We often have the service in the adjoining conservatory but, as it is a couple of steps down, we can access it from the outside,” explains Johanna of Cringletie House’s set-up. “We once had a wedding where one of the guests was in a wheelchair, and he made his way into the marquee the couple had chosen through a side entrance with a ramp.”
While it’s encouraging to see that progress is being made, the situation is far from completely satisfactory. “I personally don’t think the industry is doing enough,” states Lauren. “Venues should make it clear from the outset, on their website, what they have available, from ramps to disabled toilets.”
Grant agrees: “Up-to-date information online is key. It’s always helpful if couples can assess the facilities prior to their visit. Nevertheless, we have hosted many large events with different accessibility concerns and we approach these in the same way as we would any other event. Working together, hopefully we can exceed expectations.”