5 Biggest Wheelchair Accessible Bathroom Fails

As a wheelchair user and frequent traveler who spends over 130 nights each year in (supposedly) accessible hotel rooms, I’ve seen it all. Each time I roll through the door of a new hotel room, I always have to steel myself in preparation for what I’m going to get. I’m pretty flexible and can deal with many types of ADA violations and general inconveniences, but some are just unforgivable. If I can’t safely use the toilet or take a shower, then a hotel room is completely useless to me. Here are the five biggest wheelchair accessible fails I have come across in hotel rooms around the world.

1. Shower benches opposite water controls. Despite this being a clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I see this all the time. Even worse, many hotel rooms have this setup in all their ADA rooms with roll-in showers, so they can’t move you to another room as a remedy. They also often don’t have a portable shower chair that you can use to get you closer to the controls. And no, they won’t run to CVS or Walgreens to get one for you. They may offer to move you to another hotel property within their brand if available, which is what they’re supposed to do, but depending on where you are, that might not be an option. You’re only other option to remedy the problem permanently? File an ADA lawsuit, which is what I had to do a few years ago, sadly.

inaccessible roll in shower at Holiday Inn Express Jacksonville
My roll-in shower at the Holiday Inn Express in Jacksonville, FL

2. Toilets placed in awkward spots. I’m lucky that I can transfer to a toilet by placing my feet on the floor, grabbing onto a grab bar, and pivoting to the seat. However, many wheelchair users can’t do that and rely on lateral transfers. I’ve seen some impressive transfers by fellow wheelies before, but when you put a toilet in a tightly spaced alcove or separate little room, there’s no way many wheelchair users can safely transfer. According to the ADA, toilets in accessible hotel rooms are supposed to have the flush handle on the side away from the wall so you can easily reach it to flush from your wheelchair. Unfortunately, that’s not frequently the case, so you’d better remember to flush before you transfer off the toilet.

My toilet at the Radisson BLU in Shanghai, China

3 . Unreachable shampoo and shower gel dispensers. I totally understand that the placement of these dispensers doesn’t fall under ADA guidelines. However, it really makes you wonder what people are thinking when they decide where on the shower wall they’re going to stick these things. I also don’t like that often they’re incredibly difficult to pump from a seated position, especially with slippery/soapy hands, because they’re attached to a wall. The good news is that I have always been provided with either a tube of shower gel or bar soap upon request. However, there’s often no soap dish or ledge near the shower bench to place these. Go figure. At least these can be easily removed from the shower wall and placed elsewhere, so make sure you mention this to management. Otherwise, they’ll stay in the same unreachable spot for future guests.

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

4. The Poseidon Adventure (a.k.a. roll-in shower flooding). Every roll-in shower I’ve used has a different type of barrier intended to keep water from flowing out of the shower and into the rest of the bathroom. Some are better than others, but unless there’s a trench drain involved, you’re going to have some overflow. If you’re lucky, the bathroom will have a secondary drain to catch this runoff. If you’re not, you’ll be asking housekeeping for a lot of extra towels.

5. Poorly placed (or completely absent) grab bars. A supposedly accessible bathroom isn’t of much use to wheelchair users if the bars you need to grab onto for support are in the wrong place – or worse yet, don’t exist at all. This definitely falls under the ADA, but it hasn’t prevented hotels from placing them in the weirdest of places. Behind the toilet? Really? I’ve also stayed at a 5-star luxury hotel in the United States that had more grab bars than I’ve ever seen in an ADA bathroom. Except that they weren’t grab bars at all; they were towel bars that were thin squared chrome instead of thicker, rounded, brushed stainless steel. It was painful to grab these bars to stand up, not to mention incredibly unsafe in the shower.

The only toilet-related grab bar was above and behind the toilet at the Casa Monica luxury hotel in St. Augustine, FL.

The really discouraging part of all of this is that, despite the laws we have here in the United States to help prevent these problems, hotel bathroom accessibility is ultimately a crapshoot. Your first step is to voice your concerns to management to see if they can fix the problem locally. If they can’t move you to another room or another hotel, demand a refund for your stay. Otherwise, look into filing an ADA lawsuit to get the bathroom brought up to ADA code for future disabled guests.

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  1. Carol Graham

    I wonder why the shower wand is left at the very top. Why not leave it at the bottom after making up the room for the next guest.

    For me, if I can’t get to the toilet the room is a fail. That is my number one issue. (Aside from beds that are too tall to get into).

    1. That is the one that always gets me. I do ADA surveys as part of my job at an Independent Living Center and I always tell management to inform their housekeeping staff to keep the shower head at the lower position

  2. Allan Miller

    This is a good article with good photos.

    A roll-in shower that floods and requires towels to dry up the floor is a fall hazard. It’s not only bad design it’s also dangerous.

    I agree about demanding a refund and being assertive with hotel management in demanding compliance with ADA requirements.

    If the local management isn’t helpful you can get through to the senior management of a hotel chain by using Facebook Messenger.

    Grab bars should be rounded as you say and the ADA requirement is that the gap between the grab bar and the wall should be no more than 1.5″ so that your hand can’t get trapped which can lead to a wrist fracture. Older grab bars have too large a gap.

    I usually take my own shower soap and shampoo in containers that I can manage. The familiar is easier for me and I want to avoid frustration.

    I’ve seen a grab bar at the back of a toilet in a number of places and I think that this is to assist in transfers and also to provide stability for men who stand to urinate. The more grab bars the better.

    I go to a seniors centre in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. The staff have installed grab bars to the wall side of the toilet and a drop down grab bar on the other side. Some of the members of the seniors’ centre have one side weakness and having a bar on both sides accommodates their needs.

    On a positive note, we have travelled extensively through the west coast of the USA and we find American accommodations are usually better than those in Canada. But there’s always room for improvement.

  3. We’ve experienced all of the above. One thing I don’t understand is when a hotel has all their ADA rooms on the 2nd, 3rd…floors. Impossible to escape during an emergency when power is out!

    1. Lori

      I agree! My mother-in-law requires a roll in shower as she cannot lift her knees very high. We stayed at a resort on Lido Key in Florida last year and she was on the 7th floor…overlooking the roof and mechanical equipment! If there was an emergency, there was no way she could walk down 7 flights of stairs. I complained to management (wrote a letter as well) and had no reply.

  4. Ali V

    I have experienced the Poseidon adventure in Rome where the water flowed across the bathroom floor, under the door and across the carpet! I am finding now that I use my single elbow crutch, slippery tiles are a hazard. Some are textured which is so much safer.

  5. Sandy

    Thank you for sharing your story. I stayed at the Sandals resort and during booking, stated that I can not function unless I have a roll in shower. Needless to say when I arrived the bathroom was not handicap accessible and they refused to compensate me for the trip because they obtained a room the next day, that was not really accessible. There are so many layers to this experience and it was terrible to say the least.

  6. Yeah, this weekend I stayed at a Hilton Gardens and they couldn’t accommodate my ADA request. This was after making the reservation directly with them a month prior. So up I went to the 5th floor as far as possible from the elevator. At least there was a grab bar in the regular shower…

  7. R. Handy

    I would love to be an inspector for enforcing ADA compliance. If only the owners (budget keepers) of these hotels knew what it takes to travel as a person in wheelchair. We need to advocate for our needs. We should not have to risk falling trying to turn on/off the water faucet which is across the shower. I prefer rooms with tub benches which does nothing usually for reaching the faucet but it is more stable. More than anything, it is irritating to stay in newly constructed hotels that take such horrible shortcuts in the name of accomodating everyone. Accomodate the ones that the room is suppose to be designated for.

  8. Roberta Jennings

    One hotel chain that I stayed in frequently years ago had room doors that were too heavy to open. Once, when I went to the desk to ask for help getting into the room, the desk clerk said she couldn’t help me because she was the only person on duty. A guest that was checking in volunteered to open the door for me. I had the same problem in the same hotel chain in a different city. Each time that I have a problem I write to the company and suggest that they send one of their executives and put them in a wheelchair and have them try to check in and get into the room. I have not been back to that chain. May go and see if anything has changed!

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