Traveling While Disabled: One Size Fits All?

When it comes accessibility, where it exists, it seems that it often begins and ends with some accommodation for wheelchair users. And it seems, at least in my experience, that this is especially so in the case of the travel industry.

Several weeks ago, my air conditioning at home died and my house was hovering at a near constant 90°F and I just couldn’t take it any more, so I headed off to a hotel room for a weekend. While I was at the hotel, the fire alarm went off. (Actually, it went off five times, but that’s a story for another time.) As I opened the door of my room to evacuate, I was shocked by a bright flash of light coming out of the room across the hall. In my rush to get out of the building (which wasn’t on fire or anything like it) I didn’t think about the flash. It wasn’t until I returned that I realized what I’d seen.

My room was across the hall from the two wheelchair accessible rooms in this hotel, and that bright strobing light was the fire alert for the hearing impaired.

In a wheelchair accessible room.

I’m not sure if this particular hotel figures that wheelchair users are more likely to be deaf, or that deaf people are more likely to use wheelchairs.

It seems more likely that the choice was made based on the common misconception that “wheelchair users must have wheelchair accessible rooms, but anyone can use one” thus it’s no big deal for a non-wheelchair using deaf person to have to stay in that space. This is, of course, not true. The lack of tub, higher profile toilet and lower sink and bed each have implications for people for a variety of physical reasons.

And clearly they either haven’t realized or simply don’t care that if a deaf guest has to be in one of the two wheelchair accessible rooms in order to be safe in a fire, that means a wheelchair user can’t be accommodated at that hotel at all.

And so it goes. There was no signage for blind guests, except at and in the hotel’s elevator. There was no way for a blind guest to use the navigation signs to get to the elevator, nor to figure out which direction their room might be in once they were off of the elevator.

And what of guests who have mobility limitations but don’t use wheelchairs? This is my area of attention, because that’s me. In particular, I have arthritis and precarious balance, and the place where this becomes an issue most frequently the shower. Far too often, there is nothing to hold onto to climb in and out of the shower (which is odd considering that bathroom falls are so common and so dangerous) and inside the shower, there are slippery floors, sloped toward the drain. Showering in a hotel for me is often an exercise in holding onto the shower curtain rod and barely moving for fear of falling.

A walk-in shower without a tub would be ideal for me, but the tourist or business class of hotel where I tend to stay (not being made of cash) doesn’t seem to think that such a thing is needed. (Oddly, large walk-in showers are present often on concierge floors or in higher end hotels as a luxury item.) But at the same time, the other modifications which are made in bathrooms in wheelchair accessible rooms are a burden to me. I’m left with the choice: do I fight with the shower or with the toilet? How does a person decide that?

The travel website Expedia allows users to search for hotels which have certain “Accessibility Options” like roll-in showers (not “walk-in” which points toward a fully wheelchair accessible room), equipment for the deaf, braille signage or accessible bathrooms (which may or may not have roll in showers, I have no idea why they’re listed separately) though it only seems to provide hotels which have such things. There is no guarantee that the room that a person books will have the accessibility feature that they need. And far too often, I’ve found that hotels aren’t even able to be sure that they’re giving a guest a room with the number of beds that were requested, or a non-smoking room according to the reservation. I have a hard time trusting that making a reservation for a room with a visual fire alarm will always result in getting one at check-in.

The answer is always “call the hotel directly.” Which is great, if the traveler is able to use a phone.

I am just cynical enough to believe that for planners, architects and managers in the travel world, accessibility is an afterthought, and the bare minimum which meets legal requirements is all that is done. We as PWDs should be glad that there are wheelchair accessible rooms, and if they don’t fit our needs, we just have to make do. They’re ADA compliant, after all.

I’m entirely sure that they could do better. What I’m unsure of is how to make that happen. This seems like an area where the usual catch-22 applies: they don’t have enough PWD as guests for a broader range of accommodations to seem necessary, but they don’t have PWD as guests because there aren’t sufficient accommodations. And as usual, we’re the ones who pay.

13 Comments

  1. I am just cynical enough to believe that for planners, architects and managers in the travel world, accessibility is an afterthought, and the bare minimum which meets legal requirements is all that is done.

    I bet you’re right.

    A lot of the time, TABs don’t think at all about accessibility, and when they do, it’s in a grudging, annoyed sort of way. At least, that’s what I gather from the conversations (or lack thereof) regarding accessibility in my two public-service jobs.

  2. My husband and I did a similar “accessibility dissection” of our hotel & room in Bloomington, IN a couple weeks back.

    My husband is a paraplegic wheelchair-user, and I have a visual disability. Usually, when we book a hotel room, we don’t even bother going for the “accessible room” option, either because it’s more expensive, we’re only staying one night, or we just don’t expect much difference between that and a regular room. This time, we splurged on a pricier hotel, and it was a longer stay (four days), so we opted for the accessible room. After all the reading I’ve done here at FWD and elsewhere about accessibility, I found myself making a checklist of everything they did right (for one type of disabled guest) and everything they missed or did blatantly wrong. The first list was short, although not as short as I’d expected. The second list was much, much longer. As you said, it was as if, at every step, they did the bare minimum to achieve legal compliance, and refused to consider anything further. A few examples:

    1) There was Braille signage, but only on the elevators and room doors, nowhere else.

    2) The shower-head was attached to a long, flexible arm and mounted on an adjustable slider on a vertical pole, but the staff had positioned it at the highest possible point (about 6 feet off the ground) when last turning over the room, making it virtually impossible for a lone occupant in a wheelchair to reach or re-position it, let alone take advantage of the flexibility.

    3) There were safety railings EVERYWHERE in the bathroom – it looked like a futuristic space-station – but nowhere else in the room. And the beds were ridiculously high off the ground. I kept wondering how they expected some wheelchair users to transfer into bed, not to mention whether they would supply a step-stool if requested by very short guests.

    I know there’s a lot to consider when making a space accessible, but our current model of ADA-enforcement only goes so far. We have such a long way to go.

  3. I have made numerous online reservations for hotel rooms. Only twice has a hotel noticed my request for a visual alert fire alarm. Once, a hotel put me in their “accessible room”, which would’ve been great if my accessibility needs had involved wheelchairs, but the room had no visual-alert fire alarm, so I was potentially denying the space to someone who actually needed the modifications the room had.

    Hotels? UR Doin’ It Wrong.

  4. Piling every accommodation into the same room (yes, I have been assaulted by the fire alarm strobe light in my wheelchair accessible room – that thing will wake you up if you’re asleep) is kind of like putting the diaper changing station in the accessible stall in the restroom.

    But on the other hand, GGeek and her husband are the perfect example of customers who would be inconvenienced if accommodations were split out by disability (This is the room for mobility impaired people, and this is the room for visually impaired people, and this is the room for hearing impaired people – because of course those things never turn up together, right?).

  5. It takes a fairly broad grasp of the issues to do any decent planning to make a building accessible to a wide range of people with disabilities. That strobing light you saw could have induced a seizure in someone with epilepsy, but would be life saving for someone who is deaf. It would be vital that a person with epilepsy not get an “accessible” room with visual fire alarms, and that the person be well away from any room that does. It’s so much more complex than most people imagine.

  6. It’s not just hotels; I’ve run into problems with “accessible” tourist attractions where you can only get a wheelchair into the lobby and maneuvering through the exhibits with a cane is almost impossible if there is another person in the space.

    And flying when disabled (whether in a wheelchair or not) is an absolute nightmare. I dread needing to go back east (I live in LA) next spring for my step-sister’s wedding, so much so that we’re looking into taking Amtrack or driving cross country instead of flying; what’s four extra days each way?

    I’m fairly new to navigating the world with a disability, and I wish that there were more information out there about how to handle travel for those of us who are different.

  7. I totally agree on the misconcieved accessibility features of hotels (and the lack of knowledge among staff). Last time I was traveling with my friend who uses a wheelchair, the room with the accessible shower/sink had obnoxiously narrow doors so he couldn’t even get his chair in. but the strobe-light fire alarms are standard everywhere. I doubt they were just in the “special” rooms – that’s what they probably have in all the rooms. Not just for people who can’t hear the sirens, but because in a real fire smoke will limit anyone’s vision.

  8. There’s also the problem that the strobing lights could be a problem in themselves for a lot of people.

  9. Another thing that I have noticed is if you look at the sections of guides for accessibility (or at least in the guides I have looked in) it almost always offers advice only for wheelchair users.. And while I appreciate that this section exists, calling that section “People with disabilities” and then only discussing certain accessibility requirements of certain wheelchair users is… false. And leaves me confused about how to get information about filling my accessibility needs.

  10. Great post, another example of the ways in which some businesses believe that doing the minimum that the law requires is more important than actually making their premises genuinely accessible to people with a range of disabilities.

    Just one tiny point which I really hate to bring up because I really liked the post, but I’m a little bothered by the use of ‘the blind’ as a descriptor for a group of people, I’m sure I don’t need to spell out here why that might be problematic, though I know obviously not everyone would find it so, and I’m sure it was unintended but just thought I’d point it out, hope that’s ok.

  11. I was recently placed in a wheelchair accessible room in a five-star hotel in Sydney, Australia — I got a great deal online — even though I had not requested one, and the hotel was by no means full. I don’t have a visible disability either, though it occurred to me later that perhaps the check in clerk thought that because I am quite fat I would need an accessible room for some reason. Even me who hasn’t needed a wheelchair yet could see it would be not great room for a wheelchair user. The bed was extremely high and I had trouble climbing in, I am 5’2″ tall, I don’t know how someone less agile could have done it. Though there was good space all around the room and bathroom to fit a wheelchair, there was no seating furniture at all besides the bed so goodness knows where a person who doesn’t use a chair or scooter 100% of the time, or a partner or carer, would sit – even at the desk.

    I use a CPAP machine when I sleep, and there was only a power outlet behind the bed, I had to drag the bed away from the wall to use it. Again not helpful for anyone, let alone those physically unable to pull the bed out, who uses CPAP or other device while in bed.

    I wrote to the hotel manager and they wrote back and said they’d look into putting in a power outlet that’s not behind the bed, but they didn’t really “get” any of the other stuff I mentioned and kind of dismissed it.

  12. @GGeek — I once wrote a review of a room I was in at a resort that sounds very much like the one you mentioned. The one aspect that stands out in my mind to this day were the safety rails flanking both sides of the toilet. (Quite closely, at that.) A wheelchair user would have had to execute a high-skill gymnastics move to use that toilet. I’m still not sure who that room was designed for.

    @Rachel — It is a very complex thing. I found out that in the good commonwealth of Pennsylvania where I live, a hotel can, rather than having visual fire alarms installed in a room, have mobile devices. An appallingly low number of mobile devices (2 per 100 rooms IIRC) and, to add insult to it all, they can charge a (refundable) deposit to a guest asking for one. Imagine if everyone checking into a hotel had to ask for a fire alarm and had to pay extra for it.

    @Rainbow — I have edited the post to remove the inappropriate phrasing, you’re right that it was unintentional but I absolutely should have been more careful. I sincerely apologize, and thank you for bringing the error to my attention.

  13. Great post and insights. I am doing some research into accessible features and services hotels and resorts and I would love some more feedback on any other problems or concerns that have surfaced over your experiences. I am especially interested in things often overlooked or not taken care of by ADA regulations. I will be using this information in my effort to expand barrier-free awareness and overall accessibility in accommodations around the world. Your feedback is very valuable and much appreciated. Thanks!!!