When the high school speech team sent out a plea for chaperones to accompany 11 teenagers, including our son, on an overnight trip from New Orleans to Lafayette, La., my husband and I volunteered. The speech coach reserved the hotel rooms and specifically requested a "handicapped” room for us.
As we pulled off the highway into the hotel’s parking lot, it was obvious the property was old but not in a quaint, historic way. Our ground floor room did have sliding glass doors that faced the interior courtyard, a television set and free Internet access.
However, after a three-hour drive, the bathroom was the first amenity I wanted to inspect. Unfortunately, my wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the doorway. As I sat, staring into the inaccessible space, I noticed there were no grab bars or transfer bench in the standard bathtub, and the toilet had a low seat.
I called the front desk, thinking we’d been given the wrong room. The clerk repeated the room number and assured me it was “accessible.” Unable to change hotels, my only option was to use the public restroom in the hotel’s lobby.
Too many barriers
While my experience was extreme, it isn’t unusual for travelers with disabilities to find hotels disappointing. According to a 2005 survey, a whopping 60 percent of guests with disabilities who stayed overnight in paid accommodations had problems at these properties.
Physical barriers were mentioned by 48 percent of respondents, customer service by 45 percent and communication barriers by 15 percent. The national survey of 1,373 adults was conducted by Harris Interactive for the Open Doors Organization (ODO) in cooperation with the Travel Industry Association of America.
ODO is a Chicago-based nonprofit that teaches businesses how to succeed in the disability market. The survey found that travelers with disabilities are a huge segment, spending $13.6 billion annually. And experts estimate that number could double — if the hospitality industry addresses obstacles.
ODO Director Eric Lipp said, “Many of the most common complaints identified by the study, such as heavy doors and lack of knowledge among staff, could be easily and inexpensively resolved. Travelers with disabilities would prefer rooms located on the first floor and within close proximity to a food court, elevators and transportation.”
A frequent business traveler, Lipp uses a scooter. He advises people with disabilities to speak up when they encounter an obstacle at a hotel. Ask to see the general manager or the manager on duty and calmly explain your problem.
“Remember, you are probably the first person to bring it up,” Lipp said. “A hostile standoff doesn’t work. My experience has been that most managers are willing to come to a reasonable solution.”
Knowing when a property was built can give you a clue to its accessibility.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that hotels, motels, inns and lodging designed or constructed after Jan. 26, 1993, must be usable by persons with disabilities. The newer the property, the more likely that it’s wheelchair-friendly.
Hotels with 200 or fewer rooms are required to have one ADA room for every 25 rooms. Properties with less than 50 rooms aren’t required to have rooms with roll-in showers.
The best time for hoteliers to incorporate accessible design is before they construct a property. John P.S. Salmen is a licensed architect who specializes in barrier-free and universal design. President of Universal Designers & Consultants in Takoma Park, Md., he’s authored several books, including Accommodating All Guests and Everyone’s Welcome.
Salmen advises companies on accessibility solutions.
“The ADA is a civil rights law — not a building code,” he explained. “Architects and contractors are required to comply with local building codes, which are different from the ADA.”
This discrepancy between the ADA and building codes causes confusion and explains why accommodations vary in their accessibility. “The problem is clarity in the rules. And ADA standards are not perfect,” said Salmen.
Over the past 25 years, Salmen has seen a dramatic change in the hotel industry’s attitude toward accessibility issues. Upscale hotels in particular recognize that people with disabilities and the aging population represent a sizable market niche.
Among the most accommodating companies are Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where guests can stay at one of several properties that have zero-depth entry swimming pools, or take elevators to trams throughout the park.
An economy hotel chain, Microtel Inns and Suites, has embraced travelers with disabilities and has trained its staff in disability etiquette. Microtel requires that, in each of its hotels, every room classification must have an accessible counterpart. Microtel’s on-site fitness centers offer Accessible Fitness Bags, which contain 3-pound hand weights, two types of stretch bands and a pair of handgrips.
Other hotels, such as the Hyatt Regency in Boston’s Financial District, have chair lifts for their pools.
When booking a hotel, make your reservation as far in advance of your trip as possible.
Don’t just ask for an accessible room. Get specific. If you need a roll-in shower, request one. Is walking a long distance difficult? If so, ask to have a room near the lobby or elevators.
Once you’ve checked into your room, inspect it. Are there grab bars in the shower and beside the toilet? Is there a transfer bench? Is the toilet raised? Do you need more room to maneuver a wheelchair or walker? Call the front desk and ask to have a coffee table, work desk or extra seating removed from the room during your stay.
Another problem we frequently encounter at hotels is raised beds. Interior decorators are designing beautiful rooms with elevated beds, making transfer from a wheelchair extremely difficult. An alternative is to request a rollaway bed and ask the management to waive the additional expense.
Before you take a shower, request extra towels. Roll-in showers can get messy. Also, before disrobing, be sure the shower controls are within arm’s reach when you’re seated.
When you find a hotel that meets your needs, let the management know how much you appreciate it. If a hotel has done a good job, fill out the comment card or write a letter. Sign up for the hotel’s special offers or membership programs to take advantage of promotions.
With every overnight stay, you’re raising the hotel industry’s awareness that travelers with disabilities are a valuable market segment.
"Agencies Specialize in Travelers with Disabilities," Quest January-February 2007
“B&Bs Get Better and Better,” Quest, November-December 2006
“Oh, the Places You Can Go!” Quest, January-February 2007
To Boldly Go (regular travel feature)
Emerging Horizons (magazine)
Open Doors Organization
Universal Designers & Consultants
Microtel Inns & Suites
Accommodating all Guests: The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Lodging Industry, by John P.S. Salmen, 1994, American Hotel & Motel Association, download free at www.universaldesign.com
Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers,by Candy Harrington, 2005, Demos Medical Publishing, www.demosmedpub.com
Everyone’s Welcome: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Museums, by American Association of Museums and Universal Designers & Consultants, 1998,
There is Room at the Inn, by Candy B. Harrington, 2006, Demos Medical Publishing, www.demosmedpub.com
Books can be ordered through your local library or bookstore, or online.