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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.