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One Hotel Manager’s Experience as a Wheelchair User for a Day

Back in late 2016, I wrote a post for this blog titled, “Why Hotel Managers Should Be Disabled* for a Day.”  This isn’t because I want any harm to come to hotel managers. I actually inserted the asterisk after the word disabled because I meant that it would be immensely helpful for wheelchair users if hotel managers could view their properties’ accessibility (or lack thereof) through our eyes, even if just for one day. Since that time, I’ve tried to come up with a way to partner with a hotel property in my community and its manager to explore that hotel with the manager in a manual wheelchair. To say it’s been challenging is an understatement. But thanks to a recent partnership I’ve had with an adaptive technology class at Rollins College in nearby Winter Park, Florida, I was finally able to make this happen. I was also there to document the entire experience, and you can see my little documentary in the video below. Read more below that for the background of how this project happened and more details of the experience.

Just a Class Project

Towards the end of summer 2018, I was contacted by a professor at Rollins College named Scott Hewit. He told me he would be teaching a class that fall that focused on adaptive technology and how wheelchair users or people with various mobility limitations use technology to lead exceptional lives. He invited me to give a presentation in his class, and also to help his students with their semester projects. His class holds about a dozen students, and I was just so amazed and impressed that these young adults had taken such an interest in the lives of people with mobility challenges.

I gave about a 45-minute presentation on accessible travel and how I personally use technology in my day-to-day life. This included everything from my different power wheelchairs to photographic equipment I use as a travel blogger. I also emphasized that some of the best solutions for wheelchair users are not technological at all, but simple “hacks” for household objects. I’m a firm believer that something fancy or shiny or expensive isn’t always necessarily the best solution. At the end, I proposed my project. I was looking for help reaching out to various hotels and their managers and requesting their participation in an accessibility tour of their property. The catch was that the manager would be rolling in a loaned manual wheelchair so he or she could have the firsthand experience of a stay at that hotel as a wheelchair user.

alfond inn winter parkIt came as no surprise when the two students I partnered with told me they had reached out to eight hotels and only The Alfond Inn — a beautiful boutique hotel right across from the Rollins College campus — had agreed to participate.  I suggested to the students that they reach out to mobility companies and see if one would allow them to borrow a manual wheelchair for a day for the project. Fortunately, Cloud of Goods, a company that rents out wheelchairs, scooters, strollers, and bikes, was generous enough to not only loan the wheelchair, but have it shipped to the home of one of the two students at a time convenient for her.

On October 30, we all met at The Alfond Inn with Jim Heeres, the hotel’s Assistant Guest Services Manager. Not only was he willing to roll around his hotel in a wheelchair, but he was willing to allow me to videotape the entire experience for my blog. I could barely contain my excitement!

Checking Out an ADA Room

The first place we went was to an ADA accessible guest room on the third floor with one king bed. We had Mr. Heeres sit down in the chair to start from the very beginning, meaning trying to open the very heavy hotel room door while managing with a manual wheelchair. He didn’t have any luggage with him and he definitely struggled a bit. Once we got inside, it was clear that he would have plenty of space to maneuver in the room. He rolled on both sides of the bed, and showed us that he was aware the curtain pulls needed to be lowered to a certain level so wheelchair users could close the curtains.  He also told us that the beds in the accessible rooms are lower than the standard beds, and are not on platforms like the standard beds. They are on legs so people who need hoists have space underneath for them. I pointed out that there were no reachable electric outlets next to the beds for people who need to charge their chairs, and he said they had extension cords and power strips available for guests who need them.

Next was the big one — the bathroom. Mr. Heeres had plenty of room to maneuver in his manual chair, and I demonstrated to him how I transfer to the toilets and fold-down bench in the roll-in shower. He imitated my movements perfectly and he said that he felt safe transferring as well. Once we moved over to the shower, he noticed right away that the hand held shower head was inconveniently placed at the highest position. I told him that this was standard practice, and very unfortunate for someone who can’t stand up to lower it. He asked how wheelchair users prevent their chairs from getting wet, and we had him see how far he could pull the shower curtain without having to stand up.

Finally, Mr. Heeres went to the armoire to see if he could use the hangers, which he could. However, he noted that he would not be able to reach the iron or the blankets on the top shelf of the armoire. He opens another panel door and said that while he could reach the coffeemaker, refrigerator, and the ice bucket, he would not be able to reach the water bottles on the top shelf. I asked him if someone from housekeeping was on duty 24 hours a day, and while there isn’t, he did say that somebody would be available at all hours to bring something down from a shelf or bring something that a guest needed no matter the hour.

Exploring the Public Areas

The Alfond Inn is a beautiful hotel property, and we wanted to make sure that wheelchair users could access as much of it as possible. First, we visited the pool on the second floor. It isn’t large, but it’s absolutely lovely with several lounge chairs in the sun and padded wicker seating in the shade. The beautiful pool even has a pool lift! I was pleasantly surprised, as this is rarely the case at US hotels despite the ADA requirement. I asked Mr. Heeres to wheel around the pool and see if he had enough space to maneuver, which we both did.

Next we went to the lobby level to visit the lounge and the dining room. The lounge had ample space to maneuver, and a selection of seating at the bar, hightop tables, or lower tables so seating would be available for wheelchair users. In the main dining room, chairs can be easily removed from the tables to make space for a wheelchair. If the restaurant is full, one aisle between tables could be a bit too crowded for a wheelchair user to maneuver, but a second aisle between tables was much wider. We also visited the public access bathrooms right next to the lounge and library area. Both the men’s room and the ladies room had a separate enclosed accessible toilet stall with plenty of room to maneuver and a separate accessible sink. Both the towel dispenser and soap dispenser were easy for Mr. Heeres to reach from a seated position.

Afterwards, we stopped by the conference and reception rooms. The doors were heavy and a little difficult to open, but he said that during an event, one or both doors would be propped open anyway. He commented that it was much more challenging to roll a manual chair on the carpeted areas than it was on the tile or hardwood floors. I told him, welcome to the party!  lastly, we went through the beautiful atrium to the courtyard outside. He said that sometimes they use it for small cocktail parties or events, and although the sunken grassy area was accessible only by a few steps, he said they usually don’t use it for much.

A Learning Experience for All

After we were done rolling through The Alford Inn, I first asked Mr. Heeres what the experience had been like for him. He said he was actually happy because he thinks that the hotel has really good ADA compliance measures in place. I would have to agree with him. He also learned about a few obstacles that wheelchair users face in hotels like heavy doors, high objects, and thresholds, especially with suitcases or anything they have to carry, that he hadn’t really considered. I also asked my student partners about their experience, and they both said it was eye-opening. They really enjoyed having that  experience from a completely different point of view, and are now so much more aware of the accessibility needs of wheelchair users.

As for me, I learned that there really are hotel managers out there who truly care about accessibility and the comfort of guests with disabilities. Mr. Heeres had very good knowledge about accessibility requirements, and he was very quick to pick up on any shortfalls, no matter how minor they were. I can only hope that in the future, other hotels and hotel managers can use this experience as an example for how to improve their own accessibility and approaches towards guests with disabilities.

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