Radically Hospitable

WelcomeI’ve been having a complete blast here at Dartmouth.  This morning I was giving a talk to the Dean of the College Staff and one of the speakers who went before me was discussing a very cool plan that they are implementing to allow the campus community to get involved in discussions about what kind of campus they want to be.  One of the things that their Resident Life group uses as a standard is being “Radically Hospitable.”

I’ve been involved in lots of conversations about accessibility and accommodation but I’ve never heard it couched in these terms.  It struck me that being accessible – at least in the ways that I’ve heard it used – has a very different connotation than the idea of being radically hospitable.

What if, instead of complaining about how much of a pain it is to accommodate left-handed people, or how difficult it is to make a space accessible, or how a business shouldn’t have to accommodate fat people – or not thinking about these things at all – what if instead of that, our discussions were around how we could be radically hospitable.

What if healthcare offices challenged themselves to figure out how everyone could be accommodated without shame – from something as simple as having armless chairs in their lobby to something as mission critical as having the equipment that they need to transport, move, and treat patients of all sizes and dis/abilities?  Not because someone filed a lawsuit, not begrudgingly, but because they were truly excited about removing barriers to healthcare rather than trying to justify them.

What if people who happen to find themselves easily accommodated by most spaces were asking those places why they don’t make everyone feel so welcome and comfortable?

What if everyone, not just those who aren’t accommodated, refused to patronize businesses that aren’t committed to radical hospitality?

What if those who plan spaces and events had conversations starting at the beginning of planning and lasting until it was over, asking themselves and their guests how they can be more radically hospitable?

I think that an excellent way to start is with discussions like the ones being promoted by programs like Our Dartmouth, Our Home. What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of community do we want to live in?  What kind of workplace do we want?  Do we want to justify being inhospitable or choose to be as hospitable as possible?  Do we want to try to insist that people who want to be accommodated should feel ashamed, feel like they are a burden, or feel the need to justify their desire to be comfortable?  Or do we want to encourage people to believe that they absolutely deserve spaces that are welcoming and comfortable for them?

We can start with ourselves – are the spaces that we control radically hospitable?  When we invite friends out do we make sure that we’re inviting them to a space that welcomes them with radical hospitality?  Does that movie theater have fat-friendly seating? Does the restaurant have delicious well thought-out vegetarian and vegan options or are they just going to steam whatever vegetables are around? Does the hall where that lecture is happening have desks that work for left handed people?  Is that old theater wheelchair accessible?  How long of a walk is it from the parking lot to the club? Are there stairs?  Is it on a public transportation route?  Can you get a scooter to your beach bonfire?  Then expand  – whether or not I have a friend who isn’t fully welcomed by a space, do I want to support businesses tat aren’t radically hospitable? How about leaving feedback with the business, on yelp etc. letting them know exactly why they aren’t getting your money.

We can also start talking about this at our workplaces. Is the business absolutely committed to providing radical hospitality to its employees so that they can do their jobs under the best of circumstances? How about customers?  Are there armless chairs in the lobby?  How is the office accessibility – does it just meet minimum standards or has someone really looked at how it can be made as accessible as possible?  Consider having people get in a wheelchair and try to get around your office, school campus etc – I bet you’ll think of things that you can do to make it better.  Ask your customers what you can do to be more welcoming to them.  Start talking about Radical Hospitality as a business concept- how can we use it to help the bottom line, customer acquisition, retention, and referrals, etc.

There are lots of actions that we can take to make a better world, but I think that often the first action is declaring that we want a better world, a better workplace, a better community –  and I’m really inspired by the work that so many people here at Dartmouth are doing to make that happen.

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16 thoughts on “Radically Hospitable

  1. What an amazing — and much needed — concept! Businesses that adopt a radically hospitable philosophy will get my vote ($$) — even if it costs a bit more. Imagine an airline that designs its planes with this approach — wouldn’t you pay more to fly with them? I would, in a heartbeat!

    Forwarding this post to Association for Airline Passenger Rights.

  2. Love this concept! Of course, I’ve always been a fan of doing things on the front side of a situation, instead of a knee jerk reaction because of complaints or short-sightedness. There are LOADS of places I don’t/can’t go due to the distance from the parking area. I”m currently mobility impaired while I heal a foot ulcer. The thing that came to mind first, though, was how we have our faculty meetings in classrooms. Usually we meet in my room with large tables and chairs…very nice. But on occation, we go to another teachers’ room with only student seats that have the desk attached. No way I’m squeezing into that. I have to find a chair and pull it up the the side of my ‘seat’. I always feel like the center of negative attention when that happens.

    I love the idea of telling businesses what they can do to be more radically hospitable… I’m going to start doing this… as well as thanking those who already do

  3. I love this concept, but on the flip side, I can tell you that if a business wasn’t built ground up to accommodate that, retrofitting can be prohibitively pricey. I do my practicum at a small non-profit that resides in a building they purchased. The people are wonderful, but the building is in merely acceptable shape. The hallways are narrow and have sharp turns, neither restroom is handicapped accessible by any means, and even the front office is found through a tight turn. This tiny non-profit is only supported by donations and cannot in any way begin to make the structural shifts necessary to accommodate all individuals.

    Additionally, I live in an area where we pride ourselves on not having a lot of franchises and chains. We have a plethora of wonderful old mom and pop shops that couldn’t begin to afford to retrofit their facilities the way the big corporations can. Accommodating or not, we tend to like it that way because we love preserving the history in these buildings.

    In theory the idea is wonderful, but in reality, it may well be beyond impractical for many, many places.

    1. After I posted that, it struck me that I think you’re looking at this a little bit through privileged city-eyes. I don’t know what kind of places you’ve lived in before, but I know that you’re in L.A. right now, and that might make a difference. In small towns and rural areas, people tend to prefer tradition and history to change and growth. A small-town doctor’s office, for example, may have the same old lime-green chairs that were ordered when the office opened in 1956. Or a school may seat kids at the same wooden desks their parents had. Sometimes it’s nostalgia, sometimes it’s budget considerations, sometimes it’s economics. If they can make a way to accommodate someone on a case-by-case basis, I don’t have a problem with that.

      1. It’s certainly possible that I’m blind to my privilege in this area. I group up in a series of more than a dozen tiny rural towns all over the US, then lived in Austin which is a mid-size city, and now in LA. I’ll have to think more about it, but at first blush it strikes me as a privileged position to say that a love for nostalgia, tradition, or history is a good enough reason not to accommodate groups of people – especially if that decision is being made by those who are already accommodated. I think the issue with the case-by-case basis is that it creates an “othering” environment where one group of people get to be comfortable and accommodated and another group have to expose themselves to stigmatizing and shame by asking for what they need to have the same comfort and accommodation that others enjoy without any effort. I do understand budget considerations and in that case my suggestion would be for places to look at what is possible for them short term and long term.


        1. You could well be right about privilege here, too. I think it partly depends on the priorities of the whole community, but that bears some thought. In our case we have a mix of old and new, and when something new is being created, I absolutely agree that those need to be developed to be inclusive.

          I’m all for giving your business to a place of your choosing, whether it be because of the selection of goods, or because they are better accessible to more folks.

          One interesting side note. This discussion put me in mind of our state legislature in Jefferson City, MO. The state capitol building is old, beautiful, and has mish-mash jerry-rigged offices like you wouldn’t believe. They are so cramped and tight that I wasn’t sure I was going to get into a couple of them when we went down for legislative day last year. I had to squeeze my ass past some desk corners and such. There is no way in hell that a wheelchair could get into any of them. There are some elevators and such, but those are cramped and creaky. I have no idea how a disabled person would be able to watch the legislature in action.

    2. I don’t think being radically hospitable has to mean that you spend a ton of money to fix every accessibility issue immediately, or that you tear down a gorgeous Victorian and replace it with a big box. It just means that you plan proactively to be as welcoming and accessible as you can, rather than begrudgingly doing the minimum that will keep you out of court and/or jail.

      For example, maybe the mom & pop store has a bunch of stuff on the second floor, and no ramp or elevator. They don’t have the money to retrofit it, but what they can do is make sure staff are welcoming to everyone who comes in and offers accommodations as needed. So if someone comes in in a wheelchair, a staff member might, in the course of the usual friendly welcoming spiel, if they find out that the person is looking for something that’s upstairs, say, “I’m really sorry we don’t have a ramp or an elevator, but I can bring some things down for you to look at. Was there a particular style/size/color/type/whatever you were interested in?”

  4. Great post! Yay! I’m all for it 🙂 I’ve heard this exact language of “Radical Hospitality” in Christian circles for a long time to describe how they want to be as individuals and in their churches, and they base it on the way of Jesus (and yes, I realize there are also TONS of churches where people of all kinds have experienced anything but radical hospitality from churches, I have experienced it myself). But even with that being true (which it is, I know people calling themselves Christians can be horribly exclusive and mean, don’t flame me just for mentioning this, people!) if you google the phrase “radical hospitality,” for example, the vast majority of pages on the subject (and even books with that title) will be from Christian sources – monks and stuff too. Anyway, I just think it’s cool and interesting how the descriptor is growing legs and getting used in broader circles, because I think it’s a kick ass way to live.

  5. Not that it isn’t a good idea, but on the flip side of this is that it often falls to women to be accommodating to everyone. When you say “radical hospitality” I (from the south) picture the women rushing around to make sure that everything is nice. And I know in academia, there is a problem with women being expected to perform more service activities. I just think when pursuing this we should be sure that the responsibility doesn’t end up falling on gender-divided lines.

  6. This is a great discussion. I have run into problems with finding accessible and affordable space to be a therapist in. It is a huge challenge since most of us do not have the money to own a building and rent, even in spaces that are not accessible, is high. My answer to this problem was to work out how to see a client that was wheelchair bound in an office that was accessible and at a time that could accommodate her schedule. I was able to do so and have a client that I enjoy working with who is getting services from the provider of her choice. It took me about 6 weeks to work out though.

    It’s not always about changing your space, it’s about changing the paradigm of how and when and where we might make our services available. Always, of course, with mindfulness about continuing to keep the quality of those services at the same level for all people.

  7. “Does the restaurant have delicious well thought-out vegetarian and vegan options or are they just going to steam whatever vegetables are around?”

    This, so much this! Vegetarian or vegan does *not* equal “someone who subsists on steamed or grilled vegetables”.

  8. I’m a certified Interior Designer (I work on public spaces & not houses). In my state and many of the other states I’ve worked in, building code states that if you do any renovation to stuff attached to the building (moving walls or changing tile not cosmetic stuff such as changing moldy wall covering), then you are required to bring the whole space up to code. 2010 is when the last accessibility codes became active, so if you’re renovating a space finished before 2010, then the whole space must be brought up to code. Each state has a different definition of what this means. It is incredibly expensive for places to be renovated completely. Restrooms tend to be the problems we run in to. There are so many requirements for a restroom or even a bathroom to be up to code it will blow your mind. I’ve put a link at the bottom if you’re interested. Grab bars have to be in all the right places and sinks have to be reachable of course. But if your tile doesn’t meet friction requirements (it’s too slick) it all has to come up. That’s why things don’t get brought up to code enough. Sometimes owners can’t afford to do EVERYTHING they are required by law to do to be compliant. It’s incredibly frustrating as a designer to work on a space with restrooms I could never use. It’s frustrating to have to put a “brand standard” chair in a hotel room that I know my rear end would definitely not fit into because I’m looking at the specs and there’s no way my bottom fits between the arms. I’m not high enough up to work directly with clients and I’m only part-time so I really have no say. I’m just happy to have a job. I do look for ways to make things better even though I really have no major influence on the final result. Anyway, that’s my rambling way of saying owners really should just suck it up and be compliant. They try to be radically hospitable in many other ways but miss what matters most!

  9. I think it’s a great concept and I can see examples in my own town. However, a lack of “joined up thinking” can marr what could have been brilliance.
    We have a brand new and shiny sports complex which was built with a running track which is used by the two local secondary schools and a local primary school. In the evening, community groups and clubs hire it. All wonderful and accessible around the site.
    However, as groups and classes decide to relocate there, getting there is a hastle if you’re not local or don’t have a car (this isn’t in the US). We have plenty of buses but no central interchange and, after 7pm the buses go half hourly meaning a long wait after a club just to get into the town centre to catch another bus unless you get cadge a lift from a very new acquaintance. And the town centre after 8pm becomes a drunken war zone… I’ll travel half way around the world on my own but I’m wary of doing that…Oh, and if the accessible buses breakdown, you get a lovely old double decker which can’t take prams or wheelchairs so bad luck there, valued passenger. I could go on and on.

  10. Love this! As a healthcare architect designing mostly hospitals, I can tell you that accessibility codes and best practices are incredibly stringent (and rightly so!) for medical facilities. Having to view a space from another person’s perspective who may have different dis/abilities than you should be integral to any design approach.

    I do agree somewhat with the historic conversation above. There are instances where cost is prohibitive and/or historic integrity must be maintained, but there are always creative solutions to accommodating people with dignity.

  11. Yes!

    I ran into this idea last year, I do archery and was captain of the university club last year, one of my friends mentioned that at the Fresher’s fair a guy had been looking around and said something like “I guess I can’t do this” indicating a stump at his elbow and she assured him he could and someone would know how, but he walked away. I was sad, because it would have been fairly simple to accommodate him just needed one specialised bit of kit, and it bothered me, especially as archery is a surprisingly accessible sport** until I realised what was wrong.

    Now like most places, clubs etc we state we won’t discriminate, which is all well and good but as you say there is a difference between accommodating someone and making them feel welcome, and I realised we needed to say more than we won’t discriminate, we needed to say how you can participate.

    So I started asking questions and looking stuff up and am hoping to put up a page on the website answering questions about access, competing as a trans* person, specialist kit, funding etc, because it is one thing to say we can look into it when someone arrives, but if they can check things out before they come and see that they will be able to do it *that* does include people. (It is a bit of a work in progress and I was ill and had to leave my studies, but I am now feeling inspired again, thank you 🙂

    ** I do target archery which doesnt have so many hills or trees as field and hunting, and have shot with many lovely people including those in wheelchairs, those who have difficulty walking, who are missing fingers, who are registered blind, who have autism, who are hemiplegic and who are just strange enough to enjoy standing in the rain!

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