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Soap, Straws, and Sand: Where the Environment and Accessible Travel Collide

You know those tiny bottles of free shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion you love to take home with you as a souvenir from your hotel stay? If you plan on staying at one of five major Marriott International chains or an InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) property in the future, you’ll have to find toiletry freebies elsewhere. They’re replacing those little bottles with wall-mounted dispensers not to save money, but the environment. Good news, right? Unfortunately, not for hotel guests in wheelchairs. And this isn’t the only situation where wheelchair accessibility collides with attempts to preserve the environment.

roll in shower aloft sarasota
The soap dispensers are out of reach from the bench.

Some hotels hire Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) consultants to let them know if their properties are in compliance with accessibility laws. Most, however, never bring in actual wheelchair users to tell them if the accessible room amenities are actually convenient for the guests who would be using them. If they did, they’d know the vast majority of these dispensers are being placed in roll-in showers and accessible tubs by people who have never used a wheelchair. As a result, they’re usually in a spot where they can’t be reached and/or pumped by a person who can’t stand up.

Marriott is starting with the soap switch in 450 of its hotels and plans to expand to 1,500 hotels in North America by January 2019. IHG already has the change in place at its Kimpton brand hotels. According to Hotel News Resource, for a 140-room property, moving to a three-bottle shower dispenser system is expected to result in the elimination of more than 23,000 tiny toiletry bottles annually – the equivalent of 250 pounds of plastic per year. That’s fantastic for the environment, but still means that wheelchair travelers may need to bring their own soap for hotel stays.

Changes in environmental policies by business are resulting in another “BYOS” situation for wheelchair users—bring your own straws. In March 2018, the New York Times reported that an increasing number of U.S. cities have banned or limited the use of plastic straws in restaurants. Although straws represent a small percentage of the plastic that’s produced and consumed, advocates for the ban say they often end up on beaches and in oceans, and sometimes mangling or killing marine life.

 

Plastic straws may become a thing of the past.

Drinking from a glass isn’t a problem for most, but it is for many people with disabilities who can’t even hold a glass or cup, let alone drink from one. The solution offered by many is for people who need straws at restaurants to just bring their own—non-plastic preferred, of course. For people with severe disabilities and their caregivers who need to bring a laundry list of stuff with them just to stay alive, it’s not fun having to remember one more thing just to drink water.

Mobimat at Siesta Key Beach, Florida.

Even a simple trip to the beach brings the natural world and wheelchair community into occasional conflict. In recent years, dozens of beaches in my home state of Florida have installed polyester beach mats on the sand so wheelchair users can roll safely almost down to the water’s edge. These are hailed with much celebration by disabled residents and visitors alike who have longed for a beach visit. However, one of the main reasons more mats haven’t been installed is because they can interfere with the natural movement of sea turtles to the beach to lay eggs, then when the hatchlings try to reach the water.

Fortunately, there are solutions in all of these cases. Hotel chains don’t appear interested in hiring wheelchair users to advise their staff on where to install soap dispensers in convenient locations. This isn’t an ADA requirement, so instead of being proactive (which means spending money), they wait for someone to complain—and maybe they’ll fix it. The more plausible solution is for hotels to keep a small supply of shampoo bottles on hand for those who request them because they can’t reach or otherwise use the dispensers.

This solution also applies to straws at restaurants. They can keep metal or other non-plastic straws (sorry, paper straws aren’t great) on hand for people who physically require them. Looking for customer loyalty? Stamp the straws with the restaurant logo and let customers keep them, encouraging their use during a future visit.

Beach wheelchairs at Siesta Key Beach, Florida.

In the case of beach mats, cities and counties with sea turtle populations already require authorization from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before they can be installed. In Siesta Key Beach, for example, a 45-degree wing design at the end of the mat was implemented to help minimize any potential barriers for hatchlings returning to the sea. Wheelchair users would love to reach the water from the mat, of course. Fortunately, where there’s a beach mat, there usually are beach wheelchairs with balloon tires for free use or a small rental fee that allow this.

But before any compromise can be reached between environmentalists and wheelchair users like me, weneed to be remembered. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and there are over 3.3 million wheelchair users in the U.S. alone. Yet, we’re largely invisible in most communities. Beach mats are clearly made for us, but how many hotels consider non-ADA furniture (and soap dispenser) placement from a wheelchair user’s point of view? How many restaurant managers know that, for some, straws are a necessity and not a luxury? It’s completely possible to help wheelchair users andthe environment—as long as we’re both on an equal footing.

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