4/30/2021 | By Annie Tobey

“All that glitters is not gold,” wrote William Shakespeare. A hotel that glitters with the “ADA compliant” label might be as tarnished as a forgotten silver platter. I.e., they may not be as friendly to disabled travelers as they seem. Travelers in need of accommodations and their travel companions should know – before arrival – whether their lodging is glittery or dull. They need to understand how to identify accessible hotels for travelers with disabilities.

The Basic Elements of Accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990 and added amendments in 2009, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life as well as in private places that are open to the general public.

Thanks to the ADA, new lodging facilities of a certain size must meet basic requirements for “mobility features” and “communication features.” In addition to added features to accommodate disabilities, accessible guest rooms should offer amenities comparable to other rooms. Facilities with more than 50 guest rooms must include roll-in showers as a mobility feature. Amenities such as swimming pools, spas, exercise facilities, saunas, miniature golf courses, fishing facilities, playgrounds, etc. must be accessible and usable by people with disabilities.

In addition, lodging facilities must identify and describe accessible features on websites and print materials. They must provide reservation systems similar to systems used by other guests. And customer service staff must be trained to respond to inquiries about accessible features.

The Dull Realities

Not all hotels, motels, and other short-term-stay facilities live up to ADA requirements. Some may abide by the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. In such cases, a traveler with disabilities may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

For example, a hotel may have an adequate number of accessible rooms, but they’re placed far down a hall (a long distance for maneuvering a wheelchair and/or luggage) or on upper floors (risky in case of emergency). Raised door thresholds could make wheelchair navigation difficult. Bathrooms may have the requisite roll-in showers, wheelchair-height toilet seats, and accessible vanities but be too small to navigate easily – or to close the door while in use.

“Even though [travel services and facilities] are much more attuned to special needs than they were 25 years ago, an employee will sometimes say on the phone, ‘We handle that all the time’ – and then I find out there are ‘two steps down’ to get somewhere – which won’t work for a scooter, transport chair, or wheelchair,” said Jim Rothrock, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services and a wheelchair user since the age of 16. Rothrock was discussing accessible travel with Martha Steger, a frequent traveler whose husband had Parkinson’s.

Steger also spoke with Cheryl Duke, who co-founded the Opening Door Inc., a web-based resource travel guide for people with disabilities. Duke said, “Guides and websites typically use symbols to express accessibility, but symbols don’t give the whole picture. Everyone wants to know how accessible is it for me – whether it’s a mobility, visual, hearing, or cognitive disability – and it’s critical to know before we go.”

Identifying Glittery Accessible Hotels for Travelers with Disabilities

To avoid unpleasant surprises while on the road, you can follow these five steps to identify accessible hotels for travelers with disabilities.

1. Know what you need

If you’ve been living with a disability for a while, you know what you need to navigate the world – and what slows you down. Keep a list of these items so you’ll know what to look for in your planning. For example:

  • Doorway and passageway widths
  • Ramps
  • Bathroom features, including grab bars, roll-in showers, toilet height, and shower chairs
  • Bed height, space under the bed for a transfer lift, and/or space beside the bed for a wheelchair
  • Number of beds or a rollaway option, if traveling companions aren’t sharing a bed
  • Easy-to-access power outlets for recharging an electric wheelchair
  • Visual alarms in case of emergency, such as bright flashing lights
  • Closed captioning on TVs
  • Audible alerts in elevators
  • First-floor accessible rooms

2. Check website listings

This is the first step in determining if the lodging will meet your needs.

The website for The Hotel Roanoke in Roanoke, Virginia, for example, lists features for guests with mobility issues as well as for those who have vision or hearing impairments. The list goes beyond room accommodations to include attention to hallways and to amenities such as the swimming pool, business center, and restaurant.

Accessible hotels for travelers with disabilities, like the Marriott Courtyard Pittsburgh Downtown

The website for Marriott Courtyard in Pittsburgh Downtown notes features that ease access for guests with mobility issues.

3. Call ahead for more information

Small motels and inns may lack accessibility information on the website, so a phone call can provide answers. The Marriott Courtyard in Pittsburgh (above) lists accommodations, but it also suggests calling for more information. For that matter, an advance phone call – wherever you’re going – could help avoid unpleasant surprises. Be sure to call the hotel directly since remote reservation operators probably won’t have firsthand knowledge.

4. Be specific!

Cory Lee runs Curb Free with Cory Lee, an advocacy and information site for travelers with disabilities. Lee tells of a time he called ahead to a hotel in Germany to ensure that they were wheelchair accessible. “They told me that they were, but when I asked more questions, it became apparent that their only real accessible feature was an elevator.” In addition to asking relevant questions, Lee suggests requesting pictures of accessible rooms.

5. Don’t hesitate to call back

Although the ADA mandates that staff receive training on accessibility features, that doesn’t guarantee that every staff member knows the answer to your every question. If you’re not satisfied with the answers, politely request for the manager’s contact information, so you can ease your mind about your upcoming stay. Not only can you find answers, you might even set the stage for a more bespoke experience upon your arrival.

Travel is a pleasure made more accessible to everyone in our modern world – including you and your loved ones.

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Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey