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No rest for disabled travelers at highway rest areas, either. READ ARTICLE.



EDITOR'S NOTE: In his Ragged Edge article "Room at the Inn -- Don't Bet On It!" from our Sept. '02 issue, Art Blaser looked at the U.S. travel industry's failure to fulfill the promise for accessible accommodations promised by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Here is his update.


Room At The Inn, Part 2

By Art Blaser

It turns out that the proverbial glass that's either half-full or half-empty is actually both. It can become more or less full depending upon many people's actions -- or inactions.

photo of hotel

Much remains to be done to close the gap between the law's promises of equality and rights and hotels' practices of 'hospitality.' Read "Room at the Inn -- Don't Bet On It!" from our Sept. '02 issue.

Some of these people are in the hotel industry.

A New York Times article earlier this year headlined "Hotels Learn To Deal With Disability" painted a rosy picture. The glass is half full!

But it's also half empty.

"Despite explicit mandates that hotels provide a choice of rooms and access to common areas, many do not," I wrote in a letter to The Times (which didn't get printed),. "even at major chains, 'choice' is often limited. When traveling with my family, I've been told 'all of our accessible rooms have one bed,' found that the 'hospitality room' where breakfast was available was reachable only by climbing stairs, and encountered stairs to the hot tub. Some hotel staff had been trained to apologize for the bathroom of an 'accessible' room that couldn't accommodate my wheelchair, for the false emailed and printed statements of a reservations agent who was 'unfamiliar with the motel,' or for not being able to honor a reservation for an accessible room with two beds, since all accessible rooms had been remodeled to have only one bed. But other staff members have not responded to direct requests for equal treatment. And some make every sincere, diligent, effort to ensure that all guests, disabled and nondisabled, enjoy their stay.

"It's progress that people with disabilities are regarded as a 'niche market,'" I continued. "But disabled people need to be seen and respected as a group that demands, and is entitled to, equal rights--whether or not a 'market niche' is filled. Some changes are being made, often under pressure from the law and disability advocates. But much remains to be done to close the gap between the law's promises of equality and rights and the practices of 'hospitality' for some guests, but not for others."

As I wrote in my earlier article, we have laws requiring access to travel accommodations -- but they aren't enforced.

Section 9.1.4 of the Access Board's ADA Access Guidelines is a good idea. It's unambiguous:

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.

But I rarely find hotels complying with this provision. As happens with much of the ADA, this provision is seldom enforced, either. Sometimes a court will enforce it following a lawsuit -- or a hotel will agree to it in mediation designed to settle disputes before they reach the courts. Yes; there's some voluntary compliance, but not nearly enough.

When I filed complaints with the U.S. Dept. of Justice over the problems I had encountered in travel accommodations, I did so out of a sense of "civic engagement." Civic engagement is what causes us to engage in processes like voting or jury service -- not out of the expectation that they will immediately improve our own lives or those of our neighbors, but simply because we are part of the democratic community of our nation.

The facts of each of my complaints were simple.

One involved the Bay Club Hotel in San Diego, California. My wheelchair would not fit in the doorway of the bathroom in a room designated as accessible.

The second involved the Renaissance Hotel in North Dallas, Texas, [Marriott's "flagship" chain] where I was told that all accessible rooms had been remodeled to only contain one bed.

The third involved the Watertown Hotel in Seattle, Washington. It hadn't opened at the time of my complaint. My complaint focused on the fact that the hotel was designed so that customers who didn't need an accessible room had a choice of two styles of guest rooms, (standard or suites), whereas customers wanting an accessible room didn't have a choice.

My first two complaints were rejected. I received the standard form letter explaining that only a fraction of complaints could be accepted.

So I simply sent them back, unchanged. And I added my third complaint.

Much to my surprise (and after my article appeared in print), all three were accepted.

I was first notified of the acceptance by telephone and email in September, 2002 just after my article was published.

After two years, two submissions by registered mail, email correspondence, and a daytime phone call back to Washington D.C., my three very simple complaints -- two of which simply dealt with choice of accommodation -- were still under investigation.

Four months later, in January, 2003, I was told my complaints had been "reassigned."

In June, yet another person told me that one of the complaints had been further "reassigned." In both cases, when I emailed the individuals who notified me, the emails returned as "undeliverable." Then I heard nothing more.

But my curiosity would not allow the story to end there.

At the end of February, 2004, I called the Disability Rights Section to ask about the status of my complaints. After my call was transferred, I was first told that the complaints hadn't been accepted. But upon my insistence that they had been, I was assured that this referred back to the initial rejections. All three complaints, I was told, were currently active, and had been reassigned. I hadn't been notified of this.

Although this might be an occasion for a Fizzies party, it meant that after two years, two submissions by registered mail, email correspondence, and a daytime phone call back to Washington D.C., my three very simple complaints -- two of which simply dealt with choice of accommodation -- were still under investigation.

Given my experience, I'd be surprised, if this filing-complaints-with-DOJ route is a solution for even one percent of the instances of disability discrimination by hotels.

The complaint mechanism may be worth pursuing, if only to be able to answer the "But don't we have a law?" question. And five months seems more than a reasonable time to wait before making a phone call or letter asking "what gives?"

On March 3, just before 7 a.m , I received a telephone call from the Department of Justice. It's possible that people on the East Coast think that the West Coast is three hours ahead of them; it is also possible that this would be a likely time to get no answer, or an answering machine. Actually, I was about to leave for the day.

When I answered the phone, I learned that slowly something was happening on one of my complaints. The investigation had been completed; the next step was the writing of the report. That investigator (now at least the third) had left the Department, I was told. My third complaint (regarding the Watertown Hotel) was "around here somewhere," the caller added -- "it was assigned to me, but I haven't seen it."

In any event, it would be a while before I heard much more, he continued. Everything was being delayed because of a "special project."

By now, more than two years had passed since my discriminatory hotel experiences -- and the filing of my initial fruitless complaints to the establishments.

The Department of Justice's reports are in quarterly publications -- "Enforcing the ADA: A Status Report from the Department of Justice". Information is reported in eight categories: ADA Litigation, Formal Settlement Agreements, Other Settlements, Mediation, Certification, Technical Assistance, Other Sources of ADA Information, and How to File Complaints.

But the reports often lag behind for as much as a year.

There should be more enforcement actions, and complaint mechanisms should be taken seriously. A decent, workable complaint process would take only a fraction of the outlay for the Iraq occupation or exploration of Mars.

And although the list of categories is promising, the content is meager. There are many thousands of lodgings accommodations nationwide, but only three formal settlement agreements reached between January and March of 2003 concerned lodging. Two of them involved TTD/TTYs; another involved resort transportation. There were no formal settlements involving assistance animals, accessible rooms or showers, choice of accommodation, or the hundreds of other issues that confront travelers with disabilities. Perhaps some agreements concerning lodgings are mentioned in other reports. But we're talking about a huge industry. The DOJ agreements are grains of sand on a beach, drops in an ocean.

There should be more enforcement actions, and complaint mechanisms should be taken seriously. We have the technology for online complaint submissions, and for the timely reporting of data on the number of complaints received, the number accepted, and the average time between acceptance and resolution of a complaint. So why doesn't DOJ do this? It's cynicism to suggest that it's because the number of complaints would go way up.

There is a digital divide; people with disabilities are among those with less access to computers. But Centers for Independent Living could aid consumers wishing to complain.

Even if we're worried about big government and expense, a reformed complaint process would take only a fraction of the outlay for the Iraq occupation or exploration of Mars.

Judging from the lodging industry trade publication, Lodging Law, travelers (and workers) with disabilities are simply a problem. Last May's issue reported on the case of a housekeeper who sued under Title I of the ADA because she was no longer able to vacuum; the following issue reported on New York City's Disabled in Action, which had sued because people in wheelchairs couldn't enter Trump Tower's restaurant independently. Last October's issue gave innkeepers tips on how to get by with minimal compliance with civil rights laws (including the ADA) -- and it promoted a Hospitality Law Conference which included a session on "Americans with Disabilities Act 'drive-by' lawsuits."

When you travel, inequalities accumulate. Hotel experiences that are "not quite equal" may come on top of flight, airport, sightseeing and shopping experiences that are also not quite equal as well -- or nowhere equal. People with disabilities who travel from necessity rather than pleasure are likely to simply take what they can get, not what laws say they have a right to.

But travel can be fun. No sarcasm is intended in schmaltzy titles like Wheelchair Around the World, TravelAbility and Planning That 'Perfect' Vacation: a Wheelchair Guide to an Enjoyable Vacation.

Major improvements in accessible travel will come only when people with disabilities claim their rights and the travel industry accepts them -- not just because we're a "market niche," but because it's the law.

And maybe some day the Department of Justice will help us.

To be continued.

Posted April 21, 2004.

Art Blaser is Professor of Political Science at Chapman University in Orange, California. Read his "Room at the Inn -- don't bet on it!" from our Sept. '02 issue.

Read also No rest for disabled travelers.

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