Can making Bermuda more disability-friendly boost our tourism numbers?

This is what has been suggested by one U.S. architect who was on-island this week offering workshops for local architects, interior designers and members of the planning department on how easy it can be to make Bermuda a welcoming place for the disabled.

Kim Paarlberg was invited to speak by The National Office for Seniors and the Physically Challenged as their guest speaker at the Access 2009 seminar, held at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess.

"The initial reaction from some businesses is, 'I never see a person in a wheelchair nearby office or business. I don't need to make the changes'," Ms Paarlberg said. "But it is not just about people in wheelchairs.

"This is especially true with cruise ship passengers where most people are over 65 - which is the fastest growing population.

"In the U.S. 40 per cent of the 65-plus population have either hearing, visibility or mobility problems, and Bermuda should take this into consideration."

Ms Paarlberg is a senior staff architect in technical services with the International Code Council (ICC) at the Chicago Regional office and advises design experts on how to bring their buildings inline with current building codes.

Her expertise with ICC includes code development, providing code interpretations, instructing technical seminars and reviewing instruction materials and code commentary.

"The hope is that as alterations are made to various buildings, designers us it as a chance to get it up-to-date with building codes," Ms Paarlberg said. "If, for example, you need to replace the front door, while you are there it is an opportunity to make changes so people with disabilities can also use it as an entrance.

"Over time the existing building will slowly become accessible."

Bermuda's accessibility officer Keith Simmons gave Ms Paarlberg a tour of Hamilton during her visit to show her examples of some of our accessible buildings.

Ms Paarlberg said: "Keith showed me some marvellous examples of buildings that are accessible - buildings, for example, which have a ramp up to the front door, or use a lever handle instead of a doorknob, or have made improvements to the restroom.

"You have to think also about the tourists that come to Bermuda - all these changes would help those with walkers and crutches - not just those in wheelchairs."

Ms Paarlberg named the Supreme Court Building as a "wonderful example," of how Bermuda can improve a building's accessibility while preserving the building's original charm and structure.

She said: "It is tastefully done and a prime example of how well the adjustments can fit at the time of construction."

WindReach executive director Lance Furbert agreed with Ms Palmer and said there are "definite tourism benefits" to improving a building's accessibility.

"It will definitely make a difference to tourism," he said. "We already have a number of special needs people that come to Bermuda on vacation.

"Keith Simmons has organized a vehicle on the island to take cruise ship passengers to and from the cruise ships to WindReach and one comment a lot of them make is how pleased they are with the access to WindReach but how inaccessible places in Hamilton can be."

Mr. Furbert added that although things were "improving" Bermuda still has a long way to go to get up to speed with the U.S.

"After they re-did the town hall in St. George's I was amazed at the number of people that came to me afterwards and said they had been to Bermuda many times before but that this was the first time they had been able to go into the town hall.

"A lot of senior citizens living abroad who have mobile chairs have to look for places where they can use their scooters and will go on the Internet to research where they can go.

"WindReach receives a lot of calls from people overseas saying that they would like to visit where else can they go."

One of the attendees at the workshops was Duncan Stott, an architect at Design Associates, who said his company plans to implement some of the Ms Paarlberg's design suggestions into their plans.

"Our company went because we think it is important for everybody to be up-to-date when it comes to building codes," Mr. Stott said. "Bermuda's a little behind in as far as the codes. Our latest code is not up-to-date when compared to the States, for example.

"Bermuda has to be seen as being handicapped friendly."

The Bermuda Department of Tourism said:

"We are in support of any initiative or organization which seeks to give visitors easier access to our beautiful Island. We are always seeking ways to improve our tourism product and enhancing the Bermuda experience."