Dear Customer Service: It’s OK to Say ‘I Don’t Know’ to Wheelchair Users

As a wheelchair traveler, I visit a lot of places where I want to partake in some kind of tour or activity. Sometimes the description is detailed enough where I can get a good understanding of its accessibility. However, more often than not, I have to make phone call to ask someone if the location or activity is wheelchair friendly. Also more often than not, the customer service representative doesn’t know the answer. The problem arises when they think it’s a bad thing to say they don’t know, and they give me a wrong answer as a result.

Here’s an example. I’m visiting Honolulu for a conference at the end of February, and I worked in some free time to explore the area. I’ve been to Honolulu before, but not as a wheelchair user. I’m trying to book a luau, and many luaus have more than one seating area. I’m particularly interested in one luau that occurs at an aquarium. Their VIP seating is the closest to the stage, but it also in front of their second tier of seating.

I called their customer service line to ask if there would be enough space for my wheelchair to fit in between the tables for Celebrity seating (in the front) and Splash seating (in the middle). I don’t want to pay $60 more than the seating in the rear if I can’t fit. I also specifically asked if there would be any problem with me getting to and from my seat and the buffet where all the food is. I’ll be traveling by myself, so I will also need some help getting food from the buffet.

Over and over again, her answer was simply that I would be able to sit there. No matter how specific a question I asked her about space and access, her answer was simply, “Yes, okay.” Finally, I flat out told her that it was okay for her to say she didn’t know the answer. I let her know that as a wheelchair user, it would be a very bad thing for me if I paid $166 for VIP seating only to find out that I wouldn’t fit in my paid seat. Only then did she give me a phone number that I should call to ask my questions.

Something similar happened to me in 2019 when I was trying to determine the wheelchair accessibility of bungalows by the Oasis Lagoon on Royal Caribbean’s private island, CocoCay. In this case, Royal Caribbean has an accessibility department available both by email and by phone. I tried my inquiry first by email in March 2019.

In response, Royal Caribbean initially sent me a very long email with all the details for their accessible shore excursions. None of it was personalized, and none of it addressed my question about accessible cabanas at the Oasis Lagoon.

I sent another email indicating I didn’t ask about an excursion and I didn’t ask about a beach cabana. I specifically asked if there would be any accessible cabanas at the Oasis Lagoon. Then I received a response that said:

Kindly note that unfortunately, we have no updated information for accessible cabins at the Oasis Lagoon/pool at this time.

Not getting anywhere by email, I called the Royal Caribbean accessible shore excursions line in May. Initially, they told me that they finally had more information, and the Oasis Lagoon cabana would be accessible. They also quoted me $499 for the use of the cabana for half a day. I still wasn’t 100% sure that they understood what I was asking about accessibility. Long story short, after several weeks of back-and-forth with Royal Caribbean, it turned out that they weren’t accessible after all, and CocoCay as a whole turned out to be a huge disappointment for wheelchair accessibility.

Shops on CocoCay are all inaccessible due to sand.

Why are so many customer service departments training their employees that it’s toxic to say they don’t know the answer to a question? Do companies think it makes them look incompetent? I understand that it’s the job of a customer service agent to answer questions, but it’s impossible to expect them to know the answer to absolutely everything. I served in the Air Force for eight years, and I’ll never forget that part of my training was to reply when I didn’t know the answer to something, Sir/Ma’am, I don’t know, but I will find out.

I see this happening much more commonly when wheelchair users call hotels, both in the United States and overseas, asking about the wheelchair accessibility of hotel rooms. It’s typical for the person answering the phone to never have actually been inside one of the hotel’s accessible rooms, let alone have any detailed knowledge of what wheelchair accessibility means. In many foreign countries, hotel employees think that something is accessible if it only has one or two steps to enter.

I’m sure someone at this hotel has claimed it’s accessible because hey, there’s an elevator!

Fortunately, I had something of a miraculous experience when I called Disney’s Disability Assistance line. I was working on a magazine article about larger families who travel with a wheelchair user, and the difficulty in finding accessible hotel rooms that could accommodate more than two people. I asked the customer service representative which of their resorts have accessible rooms that can accommodate families, and she very frankly responded that she didn’t know. She told me she would put me in touch with the reservations department, and they should know the answer. They did.

Example of a bunk bed family room at Disney’s Fort Wilderness lodge.

So, as wheelchair users, how can we get the most accurate information regarding accessibility from customer service representatives? Personally, I think it’s important to listen to your gut. If the information isn’t detailed enough for your satisfaction, or the representative sounds unsure, reassure them that it’s okay if they don’t know the answer. Politely tell them that you would like to speak with a supervisor just to confirm the information for your own peace of mind. Chances are, they’ll be happy to abdicate responsibility for giving you a wrong answer.

Ultimately, it’s up to the company in question to educate their customer service representatives on their wheelchair accessible offerings. However, we all know that unless you are a wheelchair user, accessibility can sometimes be a difficult concept to grasp. Providing customer service representatives with details such as measurements, the presence of barriers, and layouts can go a long way toward giving us the basic idea of accessibility. This should help shift the burden of responsibility towards the company instead of the traveler, as it should be.

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