Welcoming change18 January 2022
After working as a mobility instructor for 18 years for Guide Dogs UK, Gavin Neate saw first-hand the challenges visually impaired people face on a daily basis. It gave him an acute understanding of the wider disability sector and, coupled with an increasing interest in new and ground-breaking assistive technologies, it led him to create Neatebox. Founded in 2020 as a scalable and sustainable enterprise that creates solutions to help disabled people, the Edinburgh-based organisation’s app WelcoMe won the Inclusion and Empowerment Award at the UN-backed World Summit Awards (WSA) 2020. Neate tells Hotel Management International about the journey and challenges of developing these much needed products, and how hotels can be more inclusive to guests with disabilities.
In 2018, knowing who was about to walk through your door and how to interact with them – especially if they were disabled and required your staff member to adjust their communication style – would have been very useful. In 2021, awareness of the need and the ability to address these issues is an imperative if equitable service is to be delivered.
Traditionally, disability awareness has been provided as part of an induction or, occasionally and unofficially, through the year during any one of the disability awareness days or weeks. The level of training has differed and the effectiveness of the knowledge, without reinforcement, has sadly dissipated over time. When added to the transient nature of the industry and the staffing challenges faced across the sector, it is easy to understand that there is a real challenge to be addressed. Looking at the journey and arrival from the disabled person’s perspective, it is also important to understand that it is not just the delivery of service in the moment, but also the visitor’s understanding that the service will be delivered prior to booking that encourages them to visit at all.
Indeed, with over 70% of disabled people reporting poor customer service and increasingly being more prepared to report it, staff training and awareness has never been more important.
It is worth mentioning as well that our understanding of what disability is has also changed. Over 75% of disabled people are living with a hidden or invisible disability and many of those with an apparently visible condition, such as wheelchair users or guide dog owners, may also be living with another condition which we’re sadly unaware of. In these instances, the visitor is forced to self-declare at the moment of contact, a situation which is likely to cause anxiety in even the most experienced receptionist. Imagine being approached and told by your guest that they are living with Aphasia or Ataxia or Dyslexia. How might this knowledge be acted upon in the moment it is provided?
Light at the end of the tunnel
In 1999, following a three year apprenticeship, I qualified as a Guide Dog mobility instructor. My role was to train and assess the mobility of my visually impaired clients and provide advice as and where it was required. Increasingly towards the end of the training programme, I would observe my guide dog teams from a distance and ensure that they would be able to cope with, and circumnavigate the inevitable instances of discrimination they would encounter.
It was at this time in the early 2000s that I became aware of the use of smart technology by my clients. The advent of “Voice Over” on iOS devices and “Talkback” on Android meant that many of them were turning up to train with their new guides while using their technology to interact with the world in a way that had never before been thought possible. The thought took its time to form but eventually I envisioned the advantages that could be gained by connecting my disabled clients, or indeed any disabled person, through their mobile device, with a customer service representative before their arrival. The thought gestated and by 2017 I was testing the Beta version of WelcoMe, the world’s first proximity aware smartphone based staff training tool with DoubleTree Hilton in Edinburgh.
The trial proved it was possible to not only alert a reception team of the intention to arrive but also, through a pre-populated profile, to provide staff with an overview of the individuals’ physical and social access requirements, providing top tips on interaction and links to further training provided by the nations’ top charities. The pandemic has created an environment where disabled people have never been more anxious to travel and arrive, and thus staff have never been more anxious or less prepared to receive them.
WelcoMe is now available across all sectors and any environment where a person requires customer service. Additionally it is now in service in locations such as the NHS, tourism, transport, retail, local government and leisure; however, our recent launch with Bespoke Hotels award-winning Brooklyn Hotel in Manchester has provided the best possible foundation to prove that it is possible to rethink service provision in hospitality from the ground floor up.
Technology has a part to play in the present and the future of service provision but, of course, the solutions we offer must be led by the problems we are living with, and not the existence of the technology itself as is so often the case. Years of personal experience led me to realise that staff awareness was not adequate and this led to the formulation of WelcoMe and what could prove to be one of the most innovative solutions in years.
The percentage of disabled people reporting poor customer service in hospitality.
The percentage of disabled people living with a hidden or invisible disability.
We Are Purple
Opening the door to assistive technology
Neatebox’s mission is simple: to create a scalable and sustainable company that creates solutions to the very real challenges faced by our society, and aims to build smart solutions based on the challenges disabled people face every day. Smart technology has made total inclusion possible, however, this is only achievable if products meet the real needs of those who have been partitioned.
Founder Gavin Neate’s background as a mobility instructor with Guide Dogs UK has led to him having a comprehensive knowledge of visual impairment and the wider disability sector along with an increasing interest in new and groundbreaking assistive technologies.
This foundation has been built upon to develop two key products. WelcoMe, a disability-aware customer service platform, which makes it easy to get personalised and accessible customer service at participating venues, and enables staff to deliver excellent customer service every time a user visits. And Button, a remote button push app, which enables citizens to use their mobile phone to influence any type of button – it can be used to open doors and operate pedestrian crossings safely and confidently.