Beer spaces for all - part 1
In the first of a two-part series, Melissa Cole asks what it’s like to be a disabled craft beer lover, and what more could be done to make the scene more accessible
Saturday 27 August 2022
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Disability is not a minority problem; as a recent survey for the Department for Work and Pensions showed, people living with disability make up one fifth of our population. So why is it that craft beer – a community always keen to claim its inclusive credentials – has such incredibly poor representation and a frankly terrible track record of accessibility and inclusion?
When I was undertaking this article, the first thing I did was visit the websites of 15 breweries up and down the country from a survey by a train company*, and what I found genuinely shocked me; only one of the breweries, that had a tap or associated venue, mentioned anything about accessibility on their website. Let that sink in for a minute, one single brewery… and that information was to say the venues were listed and therefore didn’t have any lift facilities.
Some of the best-loved names in the UK beer scene, that talk a great game about diversity and inclusion – and in some cases have built their reputation on it – don’t have any information on accessibility available to the general public or, more importantly, the 20% of the population that might need it.
It is hard to overstate how important online information is for people who have a disability when they are choosing a venue, as Alan Robertson, who is visually impaired, told me as we chatted on the phone.
“There isn’t always up-to-date information on websites, if there’s any at all, so Untappd is a lifeline for me, I will always look on there because, if the brewery is verified, I can listen using VoiceOver for iPhone or Google TalkBack, and it allows me to plan in advance.”
The Edinburgh-based voice actor was born blind in his right eye, and is very short sighted in his left, reads braille and uses a white cane.
“I am a craft beer fan and I want to make my way to craft beer places, and there are some that are willing to factor in disabilities when they are about to make changes. But if a place has just been done up for example, generally they like to think they’ve done enough already or just aren’t interested.”
I can wander around anywhere until someone says ‘hey what are you looking for?' or until I stumble upon the bar
This can lead to real problems for people who are visually impaired, as he makes clear: “Contrast in a venue is absolutely vital for me, I’ve been in a few bars that are all brown and it’s very disorientating. While it doesn’t create a sense of panic for me, it creates a sense of disorientation, I could miss the bar by miles, I have to use sounds like clinking glass as someone loads the washer as my contrast. But if nothing is happening there, I can wander around anywhere until someone says ‘hey what are you looking for?' or until I stumble upon the bar.
“It’s exactly the same thing with very loud places, it can be just as disorienting, because as impaired people, we are always looking for clues; for me, it’s not quite the same as being completely blind but the radar is going at all times. Also, we need to talk lighting, I have two friends who are even more visually impaired than me and trying to get around a particular popular beer bar in Edinburgh which is incredibly dark, and has lots of quite steep steps, was absolutely awful.”
It’s not just physical barriers that Alan faces, despite the fact it’s obvious as we chat, he goes out of his way not to be a ‘bother’ to staff, as he puts it, and has tried to find ways to minimise how much of their time he takes up.
“I generally ask how many beers there are on the board and if it’s a lot, because I’m not going to remember what all 20 were if they are read out to me, I tell them what kind of style I’m after but really I would prefer to be asked ‘what are you in the mood for’?
“I’m making a conscious compromise because I’m asking more than a sighted person is asking for. If it’s not busy I’ll take up more time, but time is just as important to me as it is to the person I’m asking the question of.”
Having been incredibly up-beat throughout our chat, his cheerfulness does dip a little as he talks about some of the worse experiences he’s had, and of those that have been recounted to him by other, less able-bodied people.
“I know this happens a lot to women, but it also happens to less-able bodied people too, and it happens to me often enough to notice: people have lower expectations of me on my beer knowledge than an able-bodied person, and not just staff either.
“I was in a bar just recently, drinking a big imperial stout, and I started chatting to the chap beside me who was drinking a beer, that I joked was from a brewery that just pumps out big IPAs with differing hop profiles and he sounded shocked and said ‘oh, so you know about IPAs?’ It was clearly not something he was expecting.
“I’ve also known other less-able bodied people being given lagers when they’ve asked for ales, and sometimes I get someone asking me to narrow down my options in a quite pissy tone.”
And that’s just one person’s experience, there are the obvious, and not so obvious barriers faced by wheelchair users, and by people with hidden disabilities and serious health conditions, which can also have a big impact on their willingness to frequent beer spaces. For example, Sarah Mitchell contacted me to share her experiences as a sufferer of endometriosis.
“I get flareups on a regular basis and it affects my bladder and bowel, so sometimes I need to use the toilet right now and don't get a lot of warning. If there is only one toilet, it puts me off the venue, both because I don't know if I'll be able to wait in a long queue and I don't want to be a long time if others are waiting.
“My best friend has Crohn's and she has even more urgent need for a toilet than I do. She's had verbal abuse from people for using a disabled toilet, even though she is entitled to a RADAR key.
I’ve also known other less-able bodied people being given lagers when they’ve asked for ales
“Accessibility just seems like a box-ticking exercise in some places and it should be more than that. I think it would also be helpful for venues to have signs up, reminding people that not all disabilities and health conditions are visible – it might not make much of a difference, but at least it might make someone think. Having accessibility options as the default rather than being an extra on request would also be good as it can be a lonely place and having to constantly advocate for yourself is exhausting.”
But how can we all help to move the needle on making beer a more diverse community all round? First, the resounding feedback from people who didn’t want to be publicly quoted was for able-bodied people not to think of the brewery experience as ‘ours’, start looking at it from others’ points of views, and raise it consistently with the venues and breweries that we frequent.
And, from an industry perspective, perhaps take advice from breweries that have made a truly conscious effort, like Wiper and True.
“For anyone at the start of this journey we would recommend putting inclusivity at the heart of the design process from day one,” says marketing manager Alice Howells. “Make sure the conversations happen early on and give plenty of time for discussion and debate. We found it really helpful to work on this as a team; bringing in as many people as possible in creative sessions helped us get different perspectives, which led to better results, and really engaged the whole business.
“We spoke with experts from Direct Access, an international award-winning NRAC Certified Access consultancy, led by disabled people, which gave us a lot of really useful advice about how to ensure our venue was well-equipped and set up to welcome all of our visitors. From accessible car parking to clear signage, Direct Access's input was invaluable, and we hope to work with them more in the future to layer on additional improvements.
“We did a brilliant training session delivered by Workforce for the Future called 'Disability Means Business' giving our taproom team the skills and understanding to become 'disability confident', and also took training with the Good Night Out campaign.”
And when it comes to business, don’t underestimate the advantage it could give you to make clear that you are an accessible venue, as William Mayne from Bullhouse Brew Co in Belfast points out: “As the first new licence to be granted in Belfast in around 30 years, in an area that was formerly industrial, it has a lot of young people and creatives who are looking for a neutral space.
“As part of the ethos of being open and available to everyone, we wanted it to be a neutral space for anybody, gender neutral toilets have been a part of that, as well as an accessible bar, which makes us very different from a lot of the historic venues in the area.”
And it’s not just the physical buildings that need consideration either. As the industry’s first disability ambassador, head of UK Hospitality Kate Nicholls makes an excellent point about the lack of manifold recruitment tactics: “We need more diverse workforces, with both physical, cognitive and sensory because that will give us a better understanding of both visible and hidden disabilities and how to provide better access.
“We need to think about how creative you can be in your inclusion, rather than making customers feel like they are being singled out for special treatment. Braille might not be feasible, but have you trained your staff to read out the menu? It’s just part of what makes up our basic hospitality.
“There’s a lot of commercial value to this as well; if you’ve got someone with a request, then they drive the choice of venue and they will dictate where the rest of the group goes, or doesn’t go!”
And I think that last point is incredibly salient. As good beer fans, we tend to dictate where we frequent, so that we can drink what we like to drink, so perhaps it’s time we started looking a little bit deeper and instead of just considering what we want, perhaps it might be nice to consider supporting businesses that loudly, and openly, support what others need to enjoy themselves without having to make compromises.
NEXT ISSUE: We speak to breweries that employ disabled and neurodiverse workers, uncovering the prejudices they’ve faced, the support they’ve received and the successes they’ve become.
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