Beer spaces for all - part 2

In the second part of her examination of accessibility in the brewing and hospitality industries, Melissa Cole finds a more inclusive approach makes good business sense

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There is a sizeable disability perception gap in the UK, with a 2018 study revealing that one in three disabled people say they face a lot of prejudice, yet only one in five non-disabled people say there is a lot of prejudice towards disabled people. 

The results of the survey, commissioned by disabilities equality charity Scope, shows starkly how much work we need to do as a society, to ensure people with disabilities aren’t ignored, condescended to or outright discriminated against. 

One of the most startling findings of the report concerned the prevalence of ableist assumptions among the general public. These are attitudes that the holder may not believe are prejudicial, instead seeing them as benevolent; the most striking example is that 75% of respondents believed disabled people need to be cared for some or most of the time. 

This is a theme Mike Huddart, marketing director at Gipsy Hill brewery in SE London, brings up as one of his very first points when we chat about what led the brewery to focus on a broad audience for its taproom, putting accessibility at the heart of its development. 

PHOTO: The Gipsy Hill Taproom

“Long-term change doesn’t come from guilt, it comes from empathy and listening, and being open to putting yourself in someone else’s position without any ego. What we did in the taproom ages ago was all about listening to a local group, and working with them, that’s where your approach has to be formed from, or it’s not really worth it to do something unless your local community has input and help create the space that is wanted and needed, and reaching out to those who are marginalised socially.”

And there are other breweries starting out on this journey too, like Bullhouse in Belfast. Even having already had a huge fight on its hands, overcoming the archaic licensing structure in Northern Ireland, the brewery still stopped to consider accessibility in its new taproom as well. To be blunt, this instantly gives it a jump on a lot of its local rivals, housed in buildings that are unlikely to ever be sufficiently accessible to those with physical disabilities. But as owner William Mayne admits, there is still work to do, and steps he wants to take.

“Part of the ethos of being open and available to everyone was that, as well as things like gender neutral toilets, we wanted to make sure we were an accessible bar. But just chatting about this has made me realise that extending the accessibility is something we could do, and I’ll be chatting with a visually impaired customer next time they come about whether there’s anything more we could be doing to make the space more useable for them too.”

Which is an attitude that Huddart echoes: “We had loads of plans when we first opened the taproom site, but some of them just weren’t wanted or needed by the local community that we consulted. However, as we take on a second site next door, we will be revisiting that consultation, to make sure we are listening to what our customers want.”

PHOTO: Ignition Brewery

Accessibility isn’t just a customer-facing issue though. There are a growing number of businesses showing that having a disabled workforce can go hand-in-hand with a successful bottom line; a good example of this is Ignition in Sydenham, London, as director Nick O’Shea points out. 

“We are a sustainable business, because we have shown two things: if there is a good product and you can link that to a social mission, people are much more concerned about keeping you going. Second, while our team might need a bit more training at the beginning, they are honest, skilled and reliable. This could really be a good place to start looking for people in the hospitality industry, they want to be here.

“What was very tricky was trying to set up the two sides of the business: a great brewery and social enterprise, and trying to get those different people with different skills to coalesce around a single goal. We are a social care model and we are a successful business, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

The important thing to note about O’Shea’s approach is that Ignition is a not-for-profit, so the brewery and taproom themselves aren’t subsidised and haven’t received any grants. From the off, it was important to show it could thrive, while just happening to have a different workforce than the usual brewery. I first encountered this model when I visited De Prael in Amsterdam, where over 90% of the staff have either mental health issues, have disabilities or are former inmates. It is currently expanding in franchise format rapidly over the Netherlands. 

But back to O’Shea at Ignition: “The community has responded brilliantly, particularly with Covid; we hadn’t realised how valued we are until that, and the feedback we get is that everyone comes in for the beer but the bonus affect is that people are really keen to see our employees succeed. No one is phased by them, they just want to come in and make the transaction and have a place to be. Sydenham is a lovely high street and, as time goes on, we are also opening up to young families and older people, which helps extend the community hub nature of the business.”

PHOTO: Brouwerij de Prael

And while listening is absolutely key, having the determination to create accessible spaces is also vital. In Englewood, Colorado, Tiffany Fixter set up Brewability, an inclusive brewery and pizzeria that employs adults with disabilities, which has been such a success that she has a long waiting list of people who would like to work there. Based on her experience, Tiffany hopes other businesses will think a bit harder about employing people with disabilities. 

It’s not been without its challenges though, many of which sadly stem from that perception gap between those with and without disabilities.

“We have received some pushback from the public who infantilise adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and think they should not work in a brewery setting,” says Tiffany.

And pushback is putting it mildly; sadly the brewery has been subjected to some extremely unpleasant attacks from the local community, dealing with death threats, bomb threats, vandalism, online and in-person harassment and more. There has been graffiti and signs posted with slurs such as ‘bar monkeys’ and ‘save our saints from freak shows and alcoholism,’ not to mention a cease and desist letter from her former day job in special education (she also holds a Masters in Autism Spectrum).

PHOTO: Brewability Lab

However, undeterred by the attacks, Fixter has gone on to create what can only be described as the most incredible space for people with disabilities across the board, both as employees and patrons. 

“I think the biggest wins come in small moments every day. The mom who is relieved to finally find a place their child will eat without having a meltdown. The grandma and grandson who wear matching bibs/shirt protectors and use weighted silverware when sharing a meal together. The guest who grabs noise cancelling headphones off the wall when needed. It is watching customers’ eyes light up when they realise they, and their loved ones, are welcome here and taken care of like no other establishment they have been in.”

And she’s absolutely right, because I literally don’t have the space in this article to include what is available to patrons in this establishment, from colour-coded tap handles, to Braille menus, sensory area, flattened patio for access, paper towels so there aren’t any loud hand dryers and attention to making sure that there aren’t any harsh or flickering lights. I can’t think of one thing that would deter me as an able-bodied customer either; in fact, I am dying to try out the bone-vibration technology dance floor!

But businesses like those mentioned – and plenty more exist – shouldn’t be such a rarity. Breweries, pubs, bars and taprooms can all look at how to make their venues a more welcoming and accessible place. As customers too, we can engage with the places we drink about becoming more welcoming, and businesses could perhaps open their eyes to engaging with a willing and, most importantly, able workforce, and then perhaps we can start talking about ‘craft beer for everyone’. Because, as it stands, that’s just a convenient lie we tell ourselves.

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