In Conversation

AbleStay: Truly Accessible Holiday Homes

Prior to the Christmas break, I was fortunate enough to meet with Charles van Berckel to discuss AbleStay, and the transformative steps the organisation is taking to re-define accessible holiday-letting throughout the U.K. 

AbleStay boasts London’s first fully accessible holiday home. This claim may be surprising given that London is the capital city of a developed nation and hosts a population of nearly nine million people (many of whom have disabilities). However, Charles is concerned that many holiday properties which claim to be accessible are simply not suitable for individuals with the most complex physical disabilities. He is at pains to recognise the strides made in other areas to accommodate people with complex needs and also recognises the work undertaken by organisations such as Changing Places, who provide truly accessible toilet facilities, but he points out that the opportunities for overnight stays are practically non-existent. So how can people with complex needs, and their families, have a proper holiday and enjoy all the amenities and sights that London has to offer?

By way of example, Charles explains that many of the hotels and holiday apartments which claim to be accessible simply widen doorways, provide ramps, and have strategically placed grab rails. But is this truly accessible for someone with, for instance, quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy? Someone who cannot self-transfer, and who needs constant postural support? Charles’ answer is simple; no, and this needs to change. This is where AbleStay comes in.

The story behind AbleStay

Charles and his wife Jo (who is AbleStay’s Co-Founder) have first-hand experience of the challenges that complex physical disabilities can present because of their son, Kit. Like many of our own clients, Kit suffered a brain injury at birth and lives with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Kit is non-verbal, and unable to stand/self-transfer. He also requires constant postural/head support, so many of the normal tech/equipment solutions such as Eyegaze are problematic for him.

From day one, Charles and Jo made it their mission to ensure that Kit was able to live a full, happy, and inclusive life. Part of this journey was fully adapting their home to meet Kit’s complex needs. But difficulties arose when organising trips away for him – particularly those trips which required an overnight stay.

The origin story of AbleStay is one of constant roadblocks. Frustrated with the lack of truly accessible provision, Jo took to the internet and set up a Facebook Forum called ‘Accessible Holidays and Day Trips’. The point of the forum was the pooling of knowledge, and to share information, resources, and tips for people with complex physical needs ranging from Cerebral Palsy through to Motor neurone disease (‘MND’), complex spinal injuries, and acquired brain injuries.

It was a comment from Emma Moss (aka ‘Mummy with MND’) on the Facebook Forum which acted as a catalyst for Charles and Jo. Emma was struggling to find a holiday let property in London that included a ceiling track hoist, a profiling bed, and a fully accessible bathroom so that she and her husband could take a trip to the capital. Nobody on the forum was able to suggest a suitable holiday let, and after a great deal of research Charles and Jo were staggered to find that there was no such holiday let properties in London.

The lack of holiday let provision for complex physical needs, combined with an urge to ensure that people like Kit were not excluded from holidays which able-bodied people take for granted, spurred Charles and Jo on to raise awareness as to the demand for these services and to start fulfilling this demand themselves. Thus, AbleStay was born, and work began on a state-of-the-art holiday property in Worcester Park.

The Worcester Park Property

With a background in the military, engineering project management, and event management, Charles was well equipped to oversee the development of the property. As it was intended to be a holiday home, Charles and Jo had a vision to ensure that the property was fully accessible without compromising on the luxury. Why should people with complex physical needs settle for anything less? Charles and his team – including specialist kitchen designer Adam Thomas – are looking to create something that truly wows families. No stone was left unturned, and from the imaging on the website, it is clear to see that the property is as stunning as it is practical for those with complex needs.

So how is the property different from other holiday lets that claim to be accessible? The list of adaptions is staggering, for a start. From ceiling track hoists, adjustable profiling beds and mattresses, height adjustable baths and basins, adjustable shower trolleys and an accessible wheelchair terrace, through to comfortable carer accommodation, medical fridges, and sensory lights, it is plain to see that this is a far cry from ‘ramp and guide rail’ accessible. The Worcester Park property is truly catering for varied and complex physical needs.

The aim in due course, through AbleStay’s charitable arm, is to be able to sponsor/pay for families to take short breaks in the capital where the financial burden for them would be too much otherwise.

Picture of Ben Lees

Ben Lees

Ben Lees

Given how ambitious and forward-looking the Worcester Park project was, it should come as no surprise that Charles and Jo have ambitions beyond a singular property. Charles informed me that his aims are two-fold. Firstly, to raise awareness of the lack of provision for complex physical needs and inspire hoteliers/holiday let proprietors up and down the country to meet the significant demand for fully accessible holiday accommodation. Secondly, to have an AbleStay Property in every Major City in the U.K.

I have absolutely no doubt that they will get there, and as someone who works with clients who have complex physical needs, I am truly inspired by Kit, Charles, and Jo blazing a trail for inclusivity and accessibility.

In the meantime, Charles has kindly invited me to take a tour of the Worcester Park Property once it is complete, and I cannot wait to get in there.

If you’d like to help support AbleStay to bring accessibility to London, please do take a look at their Crowdfunder page here:

Ben Lees is a Partner in our Clinical Negligence team