By Art Blaser Over the Labor Day weekend a few years ago, my wife Barbara and I stayed at the Doubletree Hotel in Rancho Bernardo, California. When I re-reserved the room, I requested a shower bench be put in the bathroom. When I arrived, I discovered -- you guessed it -- there wasn't one.
I patiently explained the problem to a woman at the desk. It was clear she didn't know what one was. She looked at me, sitting there in my wheelchair, and said, "They've got bars in the showers. You just hold onto them, and stand."
Why didn't I think of that?
I'm sure that shower benches existed somewhere in the hotel, and that the housekeeping staff (which was off for the day) knew about them. But the staff member at the front desk didn't.
Labor Day Weekend, last year: This time we were at the Renaissance Hotel in North Dallas. When I'd made the reservation I specified that it was for four people -- myself, my wife, and our two young children -- and that we'd be needing two double beds and a crib.
Upon our arrival, late at night, we were told that they didn't have such a room; that all the accessible rooms now had only one double bed -- those rooms themselves were smaller, to compensate for the larger bathroom.
After being given a room that just wouldn't do, we were told that we could use the connecting room next door. As it turned out, the doorway between the two rooms, and even its doorway from the hall, were too narrow to get through in a wheelchair.
I discovered this when our son, not yet five months old, awoke in the adjacent room, crying. My wife, who had put him to sleep in his crib, was now downstairs.
I spent some time trying to get through the too-narrow door. Finally I removed an armrest and scraped through; had I lurched to the left I'd have ended up on the floor. Fortunately, that didn't happen.
While I was trying to get to my son, he had a good cry, and perhaps I should have, but I ended up sighing with relief, knowing that things could have turned out much worse.
As he signed the law in 1990, Pres. George H. W. Bush said that the Americans with Disabilities Act would "ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees . . . freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the . . . mosaic of the American mainstream."
Well, maybe. Travel is more feasible now than a decade ago, and the ADA has helped people like me who complain that travel ought to allow disabled people to "blend fully and equally." But hotels have been thorns in travelers' sides in the past, and will continue to be in the future.
Three years ago a women calling a luxury Beverly Hills hotel was told that her disabled son was "not the Peninsula's type of clientele."
Nikki Stracka used the ADA in March to sue the posh Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel for the remark; in May, the hotel settled with the California attorney general's office, which had filed its own disability discrimination suit under California law.
A woman requesting a TTY machine, required under the ADA, was told, "We don't have that law in Michigan." Another employee knew what a TTY was and eventually produced one. "Funny thing about common decency," said Bonnie Poitras Tucker, the hearing-impaired law professor at Arizona State University who had the experience. "It's become a lot more common now that it's the law."
At San Diego's Bay Club Hotel we'd rented a room designated as "accessible," and indeed it had lots of signs of accessibility: a wider entry doorway, lever door hardware, a lowered peephole. Just one problem: it was not possible to take a wheelchair into the bathroom. I mentioned this to the person at the front desk upon checking out. She laughed nervously and said in a concerned voice, "Oh, I'm sorry."
A Seattle hotel, Watertown, opened this May. Most of its rooms are studio suites, but some are suites with a separate bedroom, so guests have a choice -- unless they use a wheelchair. Indeed the hotel insists that "all our rooms are wheelchair accessible." It's just that the "suites may not have all the features as our ADA equipped rooms," as Watertown's Patty Davis put it to me in an e-mail exchange. As it turns out, Watertown has only "four rooms that are completely ADA accessible which include a large bathroom that accommodates the 5-ft. turning radius and other amenities."
Restricted choice is a problem if you've got two kids who take naps, but never at the same time. This July what we wanted was a kitchen unit -- a suite. They were available to everyone else, but not to people needing wheelchair access.
Restricted choice is contrary to the spirit of the ADA, and to the letter of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design as well. The ADA is a commonsense law: other things being equal, disabled people, it says, should enjoy the same rights and privileges as nondisabled people.
Consider this section of the Standards:
"9.1.4 Classes of Sleeping Accommodations.
(1) In order to provide persons with disabilities a range of options equivalent to those available to other persons served by the facility, sleeping rooms and suites . . . shall be dispersed among the various classes of sleeping accommodations available to patrons of the place of transient lodging. Factors to be considered include room size, cost, amenities provided, and the number of beds provided."
"I am tired of asking if they really think Chris Reeve sleeps with his attendant!" California disability activist Ruthee Goldkorn said, commenting on the recurrent problem of accessible rooms having only one bed. Reeve and his family's first trip after the accident, one to Walt Disney World, "took an entire year to plan because of Chris's special needs," wrote Reeve biographer Chris Nickson.
The lack of extra beds isn't the only problem Goldkorn and others have noted. Toilets too low, shower fixtures too high, doorways too narrow, no choice about smoking or non-smoking rooms (a major problem for chair users allergic to cigarette smoke), inconvenient or noisy locations, rooms too small for a wheelchair to turn around in and lousy views out windows are frequent on the list of pet peeves. Ice and vending machines can be impossible to use from a wheelchair, and check-in desks too high. Some hotels simply don't have the number of accessible rooms the law requires.
Management or staff may aggravate the problems. The desk clerk at the Doubletree Hotel who told me that the lack of a shower bench shouldn't be a problem, that I should "just hold onto the bars and stand," is a good example.
Many travelers use the Internet to check hotel room rates and make reservations; reservations can often be cheaper through Expedia, Travelocity or Hotels.com. Choosing an accessible room, though, isn't something those sites offer among their room options.
What hotel websites do offer is plenty of hype. They give the illusion of offering things they don't actually have. They promise "ADA rooms" (as though an organization approved the room), "physically challenged rooms" (as though the rooms were asked to move up or down three floors), or "handicap rooms." The website of an inn near Yellowstone Park boasts "ADA approved rooms available"; a San Antonio Hyatt Resort promises an "ADA lift at Activity Pool." (Maybe the ADA should say something about pool lifts, but it doesn't.)
What they're really saying on their websites is "we flout the ADA."
Despite the options hotel websites offer nondisabled guests, there's often only one option for wheelchair guests: rooms with one bed.
In Traverse City, Michigan, a inn boasts of "king suites" and "king rooms," but chair users learn that they are relegated to "queen handicapped rooms" -- with one bed. A Gilroy, California inn boasts of "standard rooms" and "suites" with one or two beds, and "handicap rooms" -- all with one bed. Near Florida State University, an establishment offers most guests a choice of rooms with one or two beds. The choice doesn't exist, though, for the "handicap rooms," which have only one bed. In Gatlinburg, Tennessee an establishment advertises 257 newly decorated rooms, but the accessible ones all have one bed. In Madison, Wisconsin an inn offers most guests a plethora of room styles and sizes;. guests requiring wheelchair accessibility, though, have only two room choices -- each with one bed.
It seems pretty clear that, despite the law, accommodations for guests using wheelchairs are often separate and unequal. What can be done about it? Here are three approaches for dealing with the problem of inaccessibility. None are entirely satisfactory, but they have produced results for some people on some occasions.
Stick to the chains. Some people insist they have found a good, caring hotel and advocate always stay at chains. Yet I have found that problems exist at all major chains. The chains have the resources to provide access -- but they don't. Lawsuits have been filed against Howard Johnson, Days Inn, Disney Properties, Holiday Inns and Marriott.
Rely on others for assistance. Some of us stay in inaccessible rooms and depend on our spouse, family member or traveling companion to help us when the bathroom has access problems or when we can't reach the clothes hangers. This is a way for both us and our assistant to become disabled in new ways, as our assistant risks back injuries -- and we risk spinal injuries -- transferring from a toilet that's too low.
Look for a newly- or recently-remodeled hotel. Some say the solution is to stay at place that's new or recently remodeled. Many inns were built before 1990. They were "grandfathered in" under the ADA and aren't required to make changes that weren't "readily achievable." A "grandfathered in" myth has arisen suggesting that if discrimination has gone on a long time it's okay. The myth is compounded by insistence that modifications aren't "readily achievable." With hotels that are multi-million dollar properties, claims of undue hardship are ludicrous.
Blaming the victims -- and the lawyers
Critics call the ADA "the Lawyers' Full Employment Act." People like Florida Rep. Mark Foley argue that greedy lawyers prey on poor disabled people, and the idea has stuck; even at a 10th anniversary ADA commemoration held at an Independent Living Center, a speaker said that "if we didn't have the lawyers, everything would be okay."
Foley's baby is the ADA Notification Act, described on his website as a measure designed to "limit frivolous lawsuits by giving businesses 90 days to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act." Recalcitrant hotels have already had over a decade to comply, and 99 percent of the suits filed aren't "frivolous": they simply seek equal access.
Complaining is overrated -- although it can have the odd effect of enhancing one's credibility. Complaining to the management at least ensures that the "we'd have done something if only we'd known" rationalization won't wash the next time it's tried. I faxed the Dallas hotel, and wrote the San Diego hotel twice. Never did I get a response. With Watertown, the response was, in effect, "We must comply. We got all the necessary permits."
It's rare when you actually get a problem solved by complaining to the hotel.
You can next file an ADA Title 3 complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Justice (see information online at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/t3compfm.htm). My first two Title 3 complaints to DOJ, against the Bay Club Hotel and the Renaissance Hotel, got me back a grammatically incorrect form letter from DOJ and a list of addresses, one being the former address of Orange County's ILC. As influential as we at this ILC imagine ourselves to be (I'm a Board member), we don't have control over a Renaissance Hotel in Dallas, Texas. The form letter explained that the Department couldn't pursue every complaint, but noted that "you are free to file a private suit in Federal court."
I filed a third DOJ complaint, this one against Seattle's Watertown hotel, and resubmitted the previous two complaints. I heard nothing at all. Which is worse? A non-response, or an incorrect form letter?
The Department of Justice rarely sues a hotel as the result of a complaint, but it sometimes happens. DOJ has settled lawsuits with the Marriott's Courtyards regarding reservations policy, barrier removal, and TTYs (online at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/marriott.htm), and took Days Inn to court several times (See the consent decree at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/ daysinn.htm). There's been almost no DOJ litigation against hotels by the Bush administration, though. A status report (online at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/janmar02.htm) indicates one action taken against a motel in Berkeley, California, a settlement with a motel in Colorado (both service animal violations) and two instances of successful mediation involving inaccessible accommodations in New York and New Mexico. And the Department reached a settlement with the New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/ nyvegas.htm).
Private citizens, though, do file suits. If hotels followed the law, there would be far fewer of these suits. The problem isn't "lawsuit happy" consumers so much as it is hotels that continue to break the law.
When the Holiday Inn Evanston failed to install a wheelchair lift as it had said it would do when ordered by a court to provide access, Ragged Edge writer Carol Cleigh filed an action for contempt, with help from the DePaul Law School legal clinic (see Creating Access -- Now and For the Future, (Issue 1, 2002)). The judge's opinion noted that "Holiday Inn is a sophisticated party and should have been aware of potential problems . . ." Nikki Stracka and Bonnie Poitras Tucker, mentioned earlier, both filed suits and gained access.
Still, there are reasons why people don't sue more often. People who file suits aren't given medals of merit; they're branded as "litigious." At a recent deposition I was asked about court proceedings I'd been involved with; the intent of the question being to diminish my credibility by branding me "litigious." People crack jokes about my being "lawsuit happy, "ignoring the blatant access violations that drove me to sue in the first place.
Litigation can be exhausting and expensive. Public interest firms can take on very few of the many requests submitted to them. Litigation is also time consuming, and litigants must deal with transportation and courthouses that may not be accessible.
Most people who experience access violations at a hotel simply say, "I'll never go there again." They don't file complaints; they don't file lawsuits.
Yet the only way the ADA can be enforced is through lawsuits; there are no agencies charged with finding violations. The fact that access violations are the rule rather than the exception at hotels across the country only proves that, far from there being too many lawsuits, there aren't enough of them.
The Justice Department's Disability Rights Section should vigorously enforce the ADA. Non-compliance should hurt. Treble damages and punitive damages provide the "teeth" that have made other civil rights legislation successful. The ADA should also have these "teeth." A powerful consumer lobby must mobilize behind legislative and administrative changes.
I'm off on another trip with my family. Who knows what I'll find? I'll be surprised if the hotels aren't accessible, in the sense of my being able to get in, but I'll be very surprised if they comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. I'll likely have a good time, so I'm sure lots of people would think "He's got no cause to complain."
But every hotel guest benefits from people who have complained -- or sued -- to ensure access. Making every room accessible would be within the spirit, but beyond the letter of the ADA. Some guests may have difficulty deciding what to do with a large bathroom, but they'll get used to it. But I will never get used to a bathroom that's too small.
What about tour guides?
Tour guides promise to be the traveler's trusted companions. Exxon/Mobil and the American Automobile Association (AAA) even tell the traveler which establishments accommodate disabled people -- or purport to, anyway.
Exxon/Mobil confirmed my cynicism: they didn't respond to my report of blatant denials of equal access in San Diego and Dallas. With AAA, however, it's too early to tell. I received three responses; they assigned case numbers to the complaints, forwarded them to the establishments, and promised that the complaints would enter into the next inspections. We'll see.
New Hotels, Old Problems
The Department [of Justice] has conducted numerous on-site investigations of hotels, motels, inns, and other places of lodging. During these investigations, the Department has observed certain common ADA problems at newly constructed lodging facilities:
From "Common ADA Problems at Newly Constructed Lodging Facilities," U.S. Dept. of Justice (online at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/comhotel.htm)
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