Ashley Lyn Olson is passionate about traveling. As CEO and founder of the organization Wheelchairtraveling.com, the T12 para from San Ramone, Calif., documents every place she visits, both in the U.S. and abroad. She’s seen the proverbial good, bad and ugly in her travels, and is upbeat even in the face of marginal accessibility.
“There have been so many times where hotels are supposed to be accessible, and they generally are, but maybe they have an older building,” says Olson, 30. “Like one in San Francisco. There was an elevator and a roll-in shower that was pretty tight, but I could back in. And to me, it comes down to sleeping and bathing when you travel.”
But she does have her pet peeves. Among them are bathrooms. “Some hotels say ‘you can roll into the bathroom, totally,’ but I need a roll-in shower. Of course I can roll into the bathroom. And they don’t know the difference.” And why do hotel chains make sure that each room looks just like all the other rooms, down to matching bedspreads, but then have unique bathroom layouts? “Sometimes the bench is on one wall and the hand-held shower head on the other, so it becomes more challenging,” she says.
And then there’s, oh yes, bed height.
“Sometimes I’ll use the bed sheets as a rope and climb up the bed. Definitely a pet peeve of mine,” says Olson. “There’s no requirement for bed height by the ADA, which blows my mind.”
Once, while staying at a chic hotel in downtown Los Angeles, she made a big deal about her bathroom needs. “They guaranteed me it would be fine. And it was fantastic,” she says. “Then I go to the bed and there’s a 2-inch-high, 2-foot-wide platform all the way around it. So that means there’s a huge gap between me and the mattress! All of their rooms are like this, it’s their general standard.”
She has learned a trick that usually works when reserving an accessible hotel room. “If you need something really specific, when you make a reservation, talk to someone in housekeeping or maintenance, since they know the hotel intimately,” she suggests.
Be very specific, recommends Olson. It’s not good enough to just ask if a hotel has a shower bench — you have to find out if it’s big enough, and even if it has a back.
This is Not What I Asked For
Olson, a para since she was 14, is a savvy traveler who knows how to ask the right questions to get the access she needs — and whom to ask. But sometimes people who aren’t as savvy can run into major aggravation, says Kleo King, senior vice president of Accessibility Services for United Spinal. King is also a member on one of the U.S. Access Board’s advisory committees.
“People who have a new injury or onset of disease who are now using a wheelchair or scooter may not know they have to specify, ‘I need an accessible room with a roll-in shower,’ or ‘I need a tub,’ and even those who do specify that on their reservation can have it get messed up,” says King.
And yet, even when people know exactly what they need, they still might not get it. “Since the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, hotel reservations are supposed to be better. They’re supposed to take your request offline, if you use an Internet portal, and have that roll-in shower for you,” says King. “So if someone comes in and demands it, they’re not supposed to get that room. You reserved it, you need it. If all the rooms are booked, then they can call other hotels in the area to get a room, maybe send the customer to the other Marriott, that kind of thing.” But your room that you reserved, with all the specific accommodations you requested, ought to be there when you arrive.
“The bigger chains do better with this,” says King. “Most hotel chains, especially newer ones, do renovations every 10 to 15 years just to upgrade so the property doesn’t look dingy. So most do have what the ADA requires.”
It boils down to customer service, says King. “If there’s a glitch and they’re nice and take care of it, it goes unnoticed. But if the staff is rude, then the glitch becomes worse, which is true whether it’s accessibility-related or if the heat doesn’t work. If the staff isn’t responsive, it ruins your stay.”
What Does the ADA Not Say?
There are some accessibility features the ADA is very specific about: Hotels with over 50 rooms need to have at least three accessible rooms without a roll-in shower and at least one room with a roll-in shower. There are supposed to be unobstructed areas with enough space for a wheelchair user to turn around in a guest room’s bathroom. Regs say how high sinks ought to be, and even address the structural strength of grab bars. And in 2010 the standards were strengthened to assure room reservations are honored. And yet, despite this level of specificity, and despite overall satisfaction with hotel accessibility, there are some glaring areas that need improvement.
Take toilets, for example.
“Ya gotta use the bathroom,” says King. “You can’t be on vacation or even have an overnight stay and not use the bathroom. And you want to get up and shower in the morning.”
The lack of consistency from hotel to hotel in how bathrooms are laid out can be odd, says Scott Rains, an international consultant on travel and universal design. “Some of the bathrooms are so tiny or made so weirdly you can’t get in past the door, sinks or toilets. In an accessible bathroom that meets the standards, the height range may not be good for some people. In some people’s opinions, even ADA-standard toilets are not sufficient.” Rains, a C3-4 incomplete quad, lives in San Jose, Calif., and has travelled extensively throughout the world.
To keep accessibility in the U.S. in perspective, Rains talks about how the burning issue in Asia is to get hotels to stop putting in a 3-inch-tall, 1-inch-wide curb between the guestroom’s bedroom and bathroom.
And the list goes on and on.
Yet it’s worth it, says Olson. She keeps accessibility snafus in perspective by reminding herself that, after all, a hotel room is not a destination. It’s a place to stay while she’s exploring the world. “I feel the most connected to the world and alive when I travel — every sound, smell, taste is heightened. I am truly living in the moment and see how truly beautiful and full of love this world really is.”
• Able to Travel, 888/211-3635; www.abletotravel.org. This travel agency works primarily with people who have disabilities.
• Accessibility Services, www.accessibility-services.com. This team of professional consultants guide businesses such as hotels toward complete accessibility. Like NEW MOBILITY and Able to Travel, Accessibility Services is under United Spinal Association’s umbrella.
• Americans with Disabilities Act Checklist for New Lodging Facilities; www.ada.gov/hsurvey.htm
• Rolling Rains Report, www.rollingrains.com. This site is a good source for the latest info on inclusive travel and the hospitality industry.
• Wheelchairtraveling.com. Wheelchairtraveling.com’s Ashley Lyn Olson travels domestically and internationally, takes lots of notes, and guides fellow wheelchair users interested in similar trips. Also, take a few minutes to view The World of Wheelchair Travel, www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xg8-9tK-y_4#t=595.
What Do You Mean By Accessible?
To gauge what respondents mean by accessible, we asked you to tell us about what’s most important, and gave the following six options:
• Accessible toilets with plenty of space for easy transfers, 165
• Proper bed height, 143
• Roll-in showers, 138
• Accessible parking spaces close to the entrance, 124
• Accessible room close to the elevator or on first floor, 93
• Proper counter height, 60
• Accessible exercise areas, including the pool, 41
We left a space for “other,” and many of you wrote in that you need room to maneuver as well as space under the bed for Hoyer lifts. Our favorite answer under ‘other’ was a person with post-polio who wants to see “staff that can solve problems.”
But then, in order to get at what is absolutely the most crucial accessible feature, we asked you to choose just one. From this we learned that being able to comfortably use the bathroom in a hotel room (75) is more important than using a roll-in shower (61), but proper bed height is a big deal (39). All other features garnered less than 10 responses each.
Where’s My Room?
We asked which hotel chains are the most reliable when it comes to honoring a reservation for an accessible room and asked respondents to name as many as they wanted. Five percent answered, “none!” but most report having luck with the following chains:
• Hilton Hotels & Resorts. Fifty-five of you responded that the Hilton chain will have your room ready when you check in. Of this 55, Hampton Inn, owned by Hilton, received 21 responses. The Hilton Garden Inn, Embassy Suites, DoubleTree and Homewood Suites each received less than 5 responses.
• Marriott received 42 responses; 35 for the Marriott itself, followed by less than five each for Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inn and Suites, and Springhill Suites.
• Holiday Inn Hotels & Resorts did well by 33 of you; 17 for Holiday Inn, another 15 for Holiday Inn Express and one for the Staybridge Extended Stay.
• Choice Hotels brought up the rear with a low 17 responses. Its Sleep Inn, Comfort Suits and Rodeway Inn each garnered less than five. Comfort Inn received 6 responses.
So what does this mean? First, it’s not a scientific poll. There are other factors to take into consideration, like which chains have the most brands. But some conclusions can be drawn, such as large chains do a better job at honoring reservations. Also, it may mean nothing that some of the smaller brands in a larger chain didn’t get as many responses, since most people book via the Internet, and if you look on the website for, say, Hilton, you’ll see its brands that are near your destination are also pulled up.
We’re the Market, Not a Niche
International travel and inclusion design consultant Scott Rains says it’s time for people with disabilities to stop insisting we’re a market niche. “We cross-cut all niches and all demographics,” says Rains. “We cover all economic brackets and we’re traveling for the same reasons everyone else does. We date, we marry, we have families.”
Our survey on hotel and motel accessibility proves Rains’ point. When we asked why respondents travel, 92 of 210 said for family vacations, followed by 68 for couple getaways and 39 for work-related trips. That’s a lot of family members, lovers and coworkers all benefiting from access technically needed by only one person.
We also asked what price range respondents typically aim for when booking a room: 72 said $50-$100, 95 said $100-$150, and 22 said $150-$200.
So much for the stereotype that everyone who uses a wheelchair is impoverished and alone.
What’s It Like When I Get There?
We asked which chains have proven to be the most accessible for you and your family during your travels, and not surprisingly, the answers reflected the same pattern as our question about reliable reservations. But there were some differences.
• Hilton Hotels & Resorts, at 67 responses, smoked the competition, and 27 of these were for the Hampton Inn alone. Hilton Garden Inn, Embassy Suites, DoubleTree and Homewood Suites each received less than 5 responses. Interestingly, those of you who took the survey find Hilton’s accessibility to be more reliable than Hilton’s honoring of room reservations. But keep in mind the survey allowed multiple responses, and some of you chose Hilton and Hampton Inn, thus giving the chain two responses from one person.
• Marriott received 44 responses, and its brands, Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inn and Suites, and Springfield Suites, each received less than five responses.
• Holiday Inn scored 32, with roughly half going to the actual Holiday Inn, and half to the Holiday Inn Express.
• Choice brings up the rear with 17 responses divided pretty evenly between Comfort Inn and Comfort Suites, and a smattering of responses for the Sleep Inn and Rodeway Inn.
A Note About Hoyer Lifts and Mattresses
Hotels are supposed to have room underneath beds to accommodate Hoyer lifts, but David Smart, a C4-5 quad, says many hotels don’t seem to know this. That’s OK. He’s figured out a solution. “There is no Hyatt in the country that has a bed frame that allows for a Hoyer lift transfer,” he says. “At a Hyatt in Santa Rosa, Calif., the manager of the hotel had the frame switched and the bathroom counter skirt ripped out so we could stay there.” Smart says there’s simply no reason for a hotel to balk at swapping out frames. “Frames cost hardly anything — you can pick one up for $40 at Wal-Mart.”
Mattress density is another factor Smart must deal with, due to past troubles with pressure wounds. “At home I sleep on an air bed that’s perfect for me,” says Smart. But I also find memory foam works just fine.” He packs a memory foam mattress topper and brings it with him wherever he and his fiancé go. “The toppers collapse pretty darn well,” he says.
Excuse Me, Does a Ladder Come With That Bed?
When I recently attempted a weekend getaway to Atlantic City, N.J., I found hotel personnel were shockingly uninformed about the very people accessible rooms were designed to service. Some didn’t see the beds as high at all. Others thought we all travel with motorized hoists or musclemen health aides to toss us in at night. One even asked why I couldn’t stand (true!). But most just couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of someone in a wheelchair needing to transfer laterally onto a bed without assistance.
To make matters worse, the runaround I got trying to find someone to even measure the bed height in an accessible room was a Herculean feat requiring numerous emails and dozens of phone calls. After speaking to everyone from reservation takers to the head of housekeeping, I landed in the voicemail of the executive director of the front office. The gentleman was well aware of the bed-height issue because his elderly mother complained about the very same thing all the time. The solution was one that I had proposed in my very first email to the hotel — if possible, simply remove the box spring and place the mattress directly onto the bed frame.
Of course there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all-disabled hotel room, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect lodgings with accessible rooms to have some kind of provision in place that would allow their staff to quickly lower a bed’s height upon request by a wheelchair user. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the ADA that addresses the bed height issue, so each of us are pretty much on our own in this little battle, but I do have some tips that work for me.
1. Call the hotel directly. Ask for a front desk manager and tell them about your access concerns. For example, if the bathroom has a bath seat, but you need a bath transfer bench, chances are the hotel will know where you can rent one that will deliver to the hotel, often on short notice. Most hotels are happy to work with you, but it may take a few calls to get the right person on the phone. If you get attitude from staff, take your business elsewhere — you will find other places that aim to please.
2. If the bed height is a problem, speak up immediately! Hotel maintenance staff deal with all kinds of problems, including this one. If they seem baffled, try to give them as much information as you can on what you need so they can figure out what to do.
3. Don’t be shy — offer suggestions such as the one I previously mentioned. Removing the box spring and having the mattress sit directly on the bed frame often solves the height problem quickly and with a minimum of hassle.
4. Be a gracious guest. If modifications are made to your bed by maintenance, thank them for their help with a smile (I offer a tip). Showing your appreciation for their time and effort helps pave the way for the next disabled person who needs it done. If you like to write reviews, YELP! is a great online outlet for sharing info — both pro or con.
5. Consider writing letters to hotel bigwigs and associations to let them know that bed heights are a major problem that needs addressing. Government agencies and corporate personnel are often
listed online, so finding them isn’t hard.
Being disabled means we deal with life’s inconveniences daily and can adapt better than our nondisabled counterparts in odd or difficult situations. By planning ahead and telling people what you need in advance, you not only help yourself, but you help others and create more awareness for all.
New Yorker Jacquie Tellalian’s blog, Norma Desperate: Crippled Spinster in Cyberspace, can be found at normadesperate.wordpress.com. This article first appeared at www.spinalcord.org/hotel-accessibility.