I stay in a lot of hotel rooms. To be more specific, I spent 129 nights in [supposedly] wheelchair accessible hotel rooms in 2017. After each and every check-in, I roll in my electric scooter to my door, pause, take a deep breath…and hope for the best. This is because experience has taught me I need to have zero expectations about what waits for me on the other side.
As an accessible travel writer, agent, and full-time wheelchair user, a large part of my professional life involves reserving wheelchair accessible hotel rooms that are not only in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but convenient for me and my clients to maneuver in. Sadly, there is no predictability when it comes to ADA rooms, even within the same corporate brand in the U.S. This is because the corporate trend of franchising hotels is now creating even more obstacles for wheelchair users.
Shifting Corporate Structures
Hotel corporations are no longer in the business of building and owning hotels. When a new hotel gets built, it’s initially financed by an individual, a company, or group of investors such as a real estate investment trust. The owners hire architects, contractors, and designers to build the hotel and often find a property management company to handle operations. Sometimes the hotel is run as an independent property, but most commonly the owner(s) will apply to become a franchise. Once approved, a major hotel chain like Marriott or Hilton provides the franchisee with a license to bear its “flag,” or brand. They can do this prior to construction (which helps attract investors) or with an existing property.
While part of holding a license for a hotel chain’s flag means incorporating certain standard design elements, it’s up to the architects to follow ADA guidelines in their blueprints and the contractors to incorporate them during construction of a new property. The newer the property, the better the chances that a hotel will adhere to the ADA with regards to accessible rooms and public spaces. Where the major problems come into play is in hotel room design that doesn’t fall under the ADA mandate.
Compliance vs. Convenience
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed in rooms where the bed is so high it’s impossible for me to transfer into it. Or the faucet and shower head in the roll-in shower is unreachable from the fold-down bench. Or the curtain pulls are unreachable behind heavy furniture. Or I can’t get into the bed on the side I need because it’s right next to the wall. I’ve even been in a room where the hotel placed a mini-fridge underneath the roll-under bathroom sink. All of these situations are extremely frustrating because hotels are under no legal requirement to fix these inconveniences.
Many large hotel companies have an ADA compliance officer on staff, and there are plenty of licensed and certified ADA inspectors available for hire. These individuals go out to properties and advise hotel owners and their contractors what ADA deficiencies exist. This allows the owners to remedy the problems prior to opening and to avoid lawsuits. However, even if an ADA inspection is conducted and everything on the property is up to code, rarely is a wheelchair user taken through each new property to evaluate it from a disabled guest’s perspective—the very people who will actually be staying in the ADA rooms.
Reactive vs. Proactive
ADA inspections happen in ideal scenarios. But in many cases, franchisees have purchased an older and lower-end property and aren’t motivated to do anything that isn’t legally required. These franchisees are simply counting on disabled guests not complaining—or more specifically, not filing an ADA lawsuit. They feel it would take less time and cost less money just to deal with a lawsuit rather than investing money up front to prevent them from happening. Sadly, guests with disabilities are less likely to complain than able-bodied guests, usually because they don’t know their rights under the ADA, don’t travel often and accept their situation as the norm, or would rather just grin and bear it.
As a frequent traveler, I know my rights and when to complain. However, elevating it to the corporate/chain level may not get me anywhere. The franchisor (e.g. IHG, Starwood, Choice Hotels, etc.) usually prefers to allow local management to handle the problem. If I call out the hotel corporation on social media, they often respond within a matter of minutes with a request to message them with the details of my problem—after which they will contact my hotel’s manager and advise me to resolve it with them. If the franchisee of my hotel falls into the “doesn’t care” category, I’m likely to receive little to no compensation for my lack of access to basic amenities like a usable bed or bathroom.
This isn’t to say that major hotel chains don’t care about guests with disabilities. I believe that they do, and have had many positive experiences with managers who have bent over backwards to make me comfortable and happy. But the current trend of franchising out hotel properties is causing a major disconnect between hotel corporations and their guests with disabilities. According to financial analysis website The Motley Fool, large corporations like Marriott and Hilton now franchise or manage nearly all of their hotels, with only a very small percentage still owned by the parent companies. This means that accessibility and convenience for wheelchair users at most of the over 53,000 hotel properties in the U.S. are created and determined on a case-by-case basis.
So, what is the reality for a wheelchair user in need of a hotel room? I will just continue to cautiously approach the doors of my supposedly accessible hotel rooms at the end of a long day, and smile and pray to the travel gods that I can simply bathe and sleep safely—like all of my fellow guests.