The truth about spas and disability

Spas have forever been spaces to recoup and recharge. Yet they’re all too often inaccessible to those who could benefit from their therapeutic potential the most: disabled people.

When 30-year-old Hol­lie-Ann Brooks got into the swim­ming pool at Paris spa hotel The Nolin­s­ki ear­li­er this year, she was in tears. 

The pool had a hoist to low­er dis­abled peo­ple into the water, mean­ing that Brooks, who is a wheel­chair user, was able to get in. The relief she felt as she entered the water was overwhelming. 

I just cried my eyes out, because it was some­thing I’d thought I’d nev­er be able to do again,” says Brooks, who lost the use of her legs after con­tract­ing sep­sis and menin­gi­tis in 2018. Just to be in this real­ly gor­geous relax­ing envi­ron­ment with my boyfriend, feel­ing so free, and chilled out, was incredible.”

Since at least Roman times, humans have stripped down, left the world behind and immersed our­selves in steam­ing vats of water. Some believe the word spa” is an acronym of the Latin phrase salus per aquam”, which trans­lates as health through water”. If true, it’s a fit­ting descrip­tion of the spa as a heal­ing space. Who hasn’t felt bet­ter after sub­merg­ing them­selves in warm water, whether it’s a bath after a stress­ful day at work, or a spa week­end after a busy month? It’s a cul­tur­al pur­suit that’s been amply rep­re­sent­ed on cel­lu­loid, from Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond film, star­ring Sean Con­nery in a corn­flower-blue tow­elling robe, to 1978 erot­ic clas­sic The Stud, fea­tur­ing Joan Collins cavort­ing naugh­ti­ly on a rope swing. 

Spas have for­ev­er been spaces to recoup, recharge and heal your­self, as well as impor­tant social spaces – the Romans talked busi­ness, trad­ed sala­cious gos­sip and even romanced each oth­er in pub­lic baths. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, fash­ion­able Lon­don soci­ety decamped en masse to spa towns to take the water, recoup and recharge away from the filthy, pol­lut­ed streets of the cap­i­tal. (Jane Austen’s final com­plet­ed nov­el, Per­sua­sion, is set in Bath, where elite soci­ety drinks the water, gets all the new pub­li­ca­tions, and has a very large acquain­tance”.) They’re still social spaces to this day. From spa days with the girls, to hen dos and pam­per­ing week­ends, the spa has insert­ed itself into British cul­ture as a par­tic­u­lar­ly female sacred space.

But this impor­tant heal­ing and social space is all too often not acces­si­ble to those who could most ben­e­fit from its ther­a­peu­tic poten­tial: dis­abled peo­ple. The spa that Brooks vis­it­ed was very much the excep­tion. Although there’s no reli­able data on how many spas are ful­ly acces­si­ble, the lived expe­ri­ence of many dis­abled peo­ple attests to the fact that, so often, the choice to access a spa is out of their control. 

If you want to go away with the girls to a spa break for the week­end, and you’re the only dis­abled one in the group, some­times it’s eas­i­er to turn that invi­ta­tion down than go through the riga­ma­role of find­ing some­where that treats you like every­body else.”

Bro­ken lifts, treat­ment rooms only reach­able via steps, chang­ing rooms so nar­row there’s no space to manoeu­vre a wheel­chair, no hoists to low­er into pools, no dis­abled park­ing spaces out­side the venue – the chal­lenges and restric­tions are man­i­fold. Often, venues don’t even realise they’re inac­ces­si­ble until dis­abled peo­ple attempt to use the facilities. 

If you want to go away with the girls to a spa break for the week­end, and you’re the only dis­abled one in the group, some­times it’s eas­i­er to turn that invi­ta­tion down than go through the riga­ma­role of find­ing some­where that treats you like every­body else,” says Brooks. 

Blog­ger and social media man­ag­er Georgina Gro­gan, 24, tells me about going to a spa in her home town of Sheffield in 2016. Although she’d been pre­vi­ous­ly and it had been wheel­chair acces­si­ble, on the day she vis­it­ed, the lift was out of ser­vice. I had to walk down two flights of stairs to get to the spa,” says says Gro­gan. After a car acci­dent five years ago, she suf­fers from spinal pain and chron­ic fatigue syn­drome. I was radi­at­ing pain.”

Then, even if you are able to phys­i­cal­ly access the space, clue­less ther­a­pists may make symp­toms worse. The last time 25-year-old writer and video pro­duc­er Eve Adler went to a spa it was far from a pos­i­tive, heal­ing expe­ri­ence. The masseuse ignored her request for a gen­tle mas­sage because her skin is sen­si­tive and bruis­es easily. 

I came away with bruis­es,” Adler recalls. It solid­i­fied the idea that spas are no longer a place for me, because most don’t know how to alter their treat­ments to include everyone.” 

Giv­en how spas typ­i­cal­ly mar­ket them­selves using the lan­guage of self-care, it’s trou­bling that so many have these issues, not least the idea has its ori­gins in rad­i­cal activist culture.

Self-care isn’t just for able-bod­ied peo­ple. It’s real­ly easy to lose your sense of self when you’re involved in the med­ical side of things, so spas are a nice reminder that you’re human.”

When we hear the con­cept of self-care today, I think a lot of peo­ple think of the com­mod­i­fied ver­sion – the hash­tag on Insta­gram, often with a link to buy some­thing like a man­i­cure,” explains Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at The New School in New York. There’s this soft­ly-lit room with a thin per­son, often a white woman, with glow­ing skin – [and] that’s some­one who’s involved in self-care. That sen­si­bil­i­ty and that aes­thet­ic per­me­ates a lot of the more vis­i­ble images of self-care today.”

But it wasn’t always this way. Self-care real­ly began as a form of rad­i­cal resis­tance to dom­i­nant struc­tures in soci­ety,” Mehlman-Petrzela explains. Par­tic­u­lar­ly around health, where you have activists who were resist­ing a sys­tem that told them that their bod­ies were unde­sir­able, that they were unhealthy, and that they were weak.” She ref­er­ences a quote from activist and writer Audre Lorde: Car­ing for myself is not self-indul­gence, it is self-preser­va­tion, and that is an act of polit­i­cal warfare.”

Self-care has been adopt­ed by the well­ness indus­try, and dis­tort­ed in ways that would make Lorde gasp. Whether it’s appetite-sup­pres­sant lol­lipops mar­ket­ed by irre­spon­si­ble influ­encers on Insta­gram, or so-called detox­i­fy­ing cleans­es” which are star­va­tion by anoth­er name, self-care has been twist­ed beyond all recog­ni­tion. And we see this reflect­ed in the ways in which the mod­ern spa is mar­ket­ed to women. 

These are (expen­sive) spaces to beau­ti­fy your­self accord­ing to West­ern beau­ty stan­dards. Browse the mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als for any of the major spa chains, and you’ll see bright-eyed white women glow­ing back on you, tow­els on head. It’s even reflect­ed in the treat­ments on offer. Slim­ming and ton­ing wraps; spray tans to colour your skin to pre­cise­ly the right shade (but no dark­er) – spas rein­force exist­ing social nar­ra­tives about which bod­ies we choose to val­ue as beau­ti­ful, and which bod­ies we leave out. It’s a bru­tal irony, giv­en those rad­i­cal ori­gins of the movement.

Any spa facil­i­ty that appro­pri­ates the lan­guage of self-care, yet isn’t acces­si­ble to the group of peo­ple most in need of it, is, then, fun­da­men­tal­ly hypocritical. 

Self-care isn’t just for able-bod­ied peo­ple,” notes Adler. She’s frus­trat­ed by the ways in which the spa – as an impor­tant heal­ing space for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties – has been appro­pri­at­ed by the well­ness indus­try. As well as suf­fer­ing from skin issues, Adler expe­ri­ences wide­spread chron­ic pain, and is a wheel­chair user. So for her, a well-run, inclu­sive spa is a life­line. It’s real­ly easy to lose your sense of self when you’re involved in the med­ical side of things, so spas are a nice reminder that you’re human.” 

Gro­gan echoes that sen­ti­ment. For peo­ple like me, we’re in con­stant pain. Mas­sages, hot water, hydrother­a­py jets and hot and cold spa rooms are absolute­ly amaz­ing for us.” Going to a spa isn’t, then, a friv­o­lous lux­u­ry – it’s a vital act of self-care, in the truest sense of the words. Lit­tle won­der Gro­gan hopes that spa providers will work to make their facil­i­ties acces­si­ble to every­one. Dis­abled peo­ple deserve to relax and be pam­pered just as much as any­one else.”

Three-quar­ters of dis­abled peo­ple and their fam­i­lies have left a shop or busi­ness because it didn’t prop­er­ly cater to them… Acces­si­bil­i­ty should be a pri­or­i­ty for all businesses.”

As a space where you go to focus exclu­sive­ly on your body, going to a spa can – and should – be an emo­tion­al­ly charged expe­ri­ence. It’s the rea­son Brooks felt over­whelmed when sink­ing into the swim­ming pool at the Nolin­s­ki. And it’s the rea­son that it’s impor­tant that spas should be open to all. Because when you’re weight­less, in water, we’re all just bod­ies – there’s no dis­tinc­tion between dis­abled and able-bod­ied people. 

I feel con­fi­dent and com­fort­able in spas,” says Gro­gan. We’re all half-naked and just there to enjoy our­selves.” Unlike in pub­lic swim­ming pools, there isn’t that pres­sure to be swim­ming. You can just do your own thing and real­ly relax.”

There’s anoth­er rea­son for full acces­si­bil­i­ty: it’s the law. 

The Equal­i­ty Act 2010 cov­ers the pro­vi­sion of ser­vices, includ­ing leisure and spa facil­i­ties, to mem­bers of the pub­lic,” explains Pro­fes­sor Anna Law­son, an expert in dis­abil­i­ty law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leeds. It makes it unlaw­ful to dis­crim­i­nate against a dis­abled per­son in con­nec­tion with access­ing ser­vices offered to the pub­lic. Dis­crim­i­na­tion can take var­i­ous forms, includ­ing direct dis­crim­i­na­tion, indi­rect dis­crim­i­na­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion aris­ing in con­se­quence of a dis­abil­i­ty and a fail­ure to make a rea­son­able adjustment.”

Yet pass­ing a law is only the start. Law­son tells me that a par­lia­men­tary select com­mit­tee reviewed the effec­tive­ness of the Equal­i­ty Act’s pro­vi­sions in 2016, and found that its imple­men­ta­tion was prob­lem­at­ic. Also, spas can legal­ly refuse access to dis­abled peo­ple if, Law­son explains, it would not be rea­son­able for them to make an adjust­ment to allow them to access the service”.

Dis­abled cus­tomers should have equal access to leisure facil­i­ties,” states James Tay­lor, head of pol­i­cy and cam­paigns at dis­abil­i­ty equal­i­ty char­i­ty Scope. “[But] dis­abled peo­ple still face unnec­es­sary dif­fi­cul­ties while out doing day-to-day activ­i­ties, with issues such as poor acces­si­bil­i­ty and lack of aware­ness from staff… What should be a relax­ing expe­ri­ence turns into some­thing far more stress­ful.” He believes that busi­ness­es need to do more. Three-quar­ters of dis­abled peo­ple and their fam­i­lies have left a shop or busi­ness because it didn’t prop­er­ly cater to them… Acces­si­bil­i­ty should be a pri­or­i­ty for all businesses.”

But things are chang­ing, slow­ly. Across soci­ety, peo­ple whose bod­ies have been dis­cred­it­ed and denied – peo­ple of colour, dis­abled peo­ple, the gen­der non-con­form­ing – are slow­ly reclaim­ing agency, and demand­ing that self-care returns to its his­toric, inclu­sive roots. Mehlman-Petrzela tells me she’s been enthused to see rad­i­cal activist cir­cles reclaim­ing the con­cept from late cap­i­tal­ism. There is a very pow­er­ful resur­gence of self-care in activist cir­cles [and] in rad­i­cal groups, spear­head­ed by women of colour and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, who are revi­tal­is­ing that old­er tra­di­tion and infus­ing it with new meaning.”

Until that recla­ma­tion is com­plete, women like Brooks, Gro­gan and Adler may strug­gle to book that pam­per­ing week­end with the girls that the able-bod­ied so often take for granted.

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