Make Yourself Comfortable — If You Can

It was a dark and stormy December night.  This is a relevant fact.

The hotel clerk couldn’t have been more gracious as we registered for a two-night stay in Avon, Connecticut.  Yes, he assured us, the room on the main floor was “accessible,” as I’d requested.  Just go right up the monumental circular staircase from the lobby and turn right.  The elevator?  Exit the front door, walk a quarter of a mile up the hill – it’s at the rear entrance.

I protested, nicely in the Christmas spirit, but firmly.  What good is an accessible room if the guest can’t access it?  We’d been promised accessibility and that didn’t include a staircase, or a treacherous walk up an icy hillside with luggage.

The young clerk was flummoxed.  He couldn’t leave the desk and, even if he could, he had no means of getting us to the room via either route.  He called the custodian.  “Coz” arrived 15 minutes later in a white Ford pickup truck of indeterminate vintage, boosted us into the front seat, loaded our two bags in the back, and drove us up the hill. Indeed, with numerous cautions, Coz then walked us to our room, over a dimly-lit path littered with twigs from the recent ice storm.  We were grateful for Coz.

The room was comfortably large, the décor pleasant enough in a dated New England sort of way.  I checked out the bathroom which, too, was sized to accommodate  someone, like my partner, reliant on a cane or other device.  But the shower was in the tub, and the grab bars were unaccountably installed along the perimeter of the tub, shoulder-height for a toy poodle.  There being no seat or bench in the tub — which might have explained the placement of the bars – only someone agile enough to somersault in, or lucky enough to have someone strong to lean on, could even arguably take a shower.

Reader, we managed.  Barely.

This is not an isolated incident; it is both revealing and cautionary.  When I’m feeling cranky, I also call it outrageous, but there is too much outrage in the air so I’ll focus on the revelations and cautions.

This hotel had tried, and at one time, someone probably believed this bathroom met the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. But, as a trial judge once admonished me, “It’s not enough to try. Succeed.”  These knee-high bars were far short of success. To be sure, ADA regulations and diagrams are confusing, opaque and intricate.  The construction or renovation date of a building dictates which rules apply. They govern the number and dispersion (among types) of rooms that must be accessible, the number and positioning of seats and grab bars in showers and tubs, the kind and location of shower and tub controls, and the height of toilets and beds, among other things.  Passage ways in rooms and halls must be wide enough to allow for wheelchairs.

Where accessibility wasn’t part of the original game plan in a pre-1991 hotel, it may be difficult to retrofit spaces to meet some of these requirements. It can be done – there is no excuse for refusing, or claiming ignorance — but it’s safe to say that few in the hotel business understand what works.  And that’s the only assumption you can make about most accommodations when booking an accessible room, especially those built or last renovated before 2012.  Asking specific questions in advance and insisting on accessibility are the starting points, but still, it’s a crap shoot. Even new hotels often clog the passageways in rooms with excessive furnishings, creating hazards for anyone with a cane and wholly blocking movement by anyone using a wheelchair or walker.  It is usual to struggle with grab bars and shower controls that are misplaced and out of reach, and common to require a hoist to get into bed.

Although we are often reminded about the growth of the elder population, the understanding and even awareness of accessibility needs are more the exception than the rule in all forms of public accommodations.  (Don’t even get me started on Broadway theaters!)  I want to note one of those exceptions, however, and give a shout out to Hilton Hotels: outstanding accessible rooms at the O’Hare Hilton! They should offer an on-site teach-in for hoteliers and designers around the country.

You don’t have to rely on a wheelchair to need, and demand, accessible hotel accommodations. The existing accessibility rules, though updated in 2012, are becoming inadequate as more aging and often frail elders, and others with disabilities, travel. Mobility and other constraints are challenging more people who nevertheless intend to and do live full, active lives.  The built environment must catch up with our needs for, as sure as death and taxes, we all will have them.