Inaccessibly accessible: When ADA compliance really isn’t

>>>Inaccessibly accessible: When ADA compliance really isn’t

If you happen to have wheels on your butt* the difference between accessible and Accessible is pretty obvious.

I should know; I’ve been playing the wheelchair card for more than a year. I’m getting very very good with Spiffy the wheelchair–I can pop wheelies and climb low curbs, and I spin a mean 360-in-place. Even so, every single day that I go outside my safe little house-coccoon, I must learn at least one new trick to manage the space I’m in.

The Elmo stories (of Elmo, my replacement knee and then the fight to save him when I smashed my femur) have been going on for more than two years now. People ask to read them start to finish, so I’ve set up this Saving Elmo index page to let you view the whole series in one swell foop.

I’m finding that most buildings simply pay lip service to “accessible,” especially when talking WHEELCHAIR-accessible. If you really do need to shoehorn your wheelchair into one of these spaces, you must learn a LOT of new tricks. And you may just injure yourself doing it.

Tomorrow I’m heading into my first surgery to get me OUT of wheelchairs. I’ve built a bit of a legacy along the way, mostly in realizing just how INaccessible the world is for us wheelies. I have more than a few ideas about how to fix this stuff.

The hotel I’m staying in right now, Embassy Suites Walnut Creek, is a perfect example, so let’s start with them.

Update 9/28/17: The general manager and head of housekeeping for Embassy Suites Walnut Creek knocked on the door to apologize handsomely. They refunded the money I paid for Mom’s room that first night, and took notes while I showed them the issues with their accessible room.

Nice of them. Appreciate it, and I hope they can make some accessibility updates.

When someone says they need wheelchair accessibility, they mean it!

Kaiser flew me down to Walnut Creek to meet the surgical team, have pre-op lab tests, and put me up at Embassy Suites. More than anyone, the Kaiser team knows I can’t walk and need wheelchair access, so they specified it.

I’ve so far arranged to stay in five hotels for various trips; only ONE actually accommodated my wheelchair access request (Stanford Motor Inn in Palo Alto). From the outside, it wasn’t exactly…prepossessing. Inside, though, they had a roll-in shower, aisles around the bed wide enough to maneuver, and appropriately placed grab bars.

It was my first night in a wheelchair while traveling, and it made me think ALL hotels did this. Sadly, not the case.

I’ve learned to be very specific in my reservation as to EXACTLY what I need. I then follow that up with direct calls to the hotel’s front desk to make sure they understand:

  • I can’t walk
  • I’m in a wheelchair, so the doors need to be wide enough to accommodate the chair
  • I need a roll-in shower and grab bars around the toilet
  • A shower seat would be REALLY nice
  • A ground floor room is MUCH preferred

I start calling a week in advance, make the last call (three in total) on the day before my trip. Did that with Embassy, “Oh yes, ma’am, we have it right here, you’ll have a wheelchair-accessible room, don’t worry.”

Naturally, I checked into Embassy and they said, “Wheelchair what? We know nothing of this and no accessible rooms are available. You’ll have to stay in a regular room. Maybe you can roll your chair over the shower ledge.”

And through it all was a mostly hidden irritation, the “walkers” behind the front desk obviously thinking, “Geeez, we told you we don’t have one of those rooms. Why can’t you just take a regular room and be quiet? How hard can it really be?”

It was late, I was exhausted, hotels were full up; I took the room. Then I opened my laptop and raised holy hell online. Best I could do that night was an accessible room the following day. Not a word about the extra expense (the room didn’t have two beds, so I had to buy another room for Mom) or any kind of compensation for the about-to-be-really-lousy night Embassy was forcing on me. (grump, grump)

inaccessible (non-handicapped) bathroomAnd yep, my night was totally miserable. I couldn’t bathe (the glass shower door wouldn’t open with a wheelchair crowding the room and the ledge made it impossible to get in anyway), so I made a sketchy spongebath and went to bed feeling grimy. The sink was too small, so I couldn’t wash my hair and wound up meeting the surgical team with a greasy head. (OK, not a terrible tragedy, but still…)

I nearly broke the other leg trying to use the toilet. Twice.

Embassy Suites, please tell me: If a reservation and three separate calls can’t get the promised accessible room, what does? How do I guarantee I’ll actually be able to use the bathroom in your hotel? Anyone who has ideas on this point, please enlighten me.

They moved us to a “wheelchair accessible room” the next day, and that’s when it became clear: Embassy Suites is a box-checker, not a company that really understands–or cares about–wheelchair users.

The room was beautiful (although, curiously, much smaller than a “normal” room)…and totally unsuitable for wheelies. Here’s why:

1) Carpet. Thick, plush carpet.

It looks great, contains sound beautifully…and YOU try manually pushing a wheelchair across a few hundred feet of it. It’s rather like rowing through quicksand, and will quickly sap your strength. Our entire “accessible” room (except for the bathroom) was covered in it.

Joke’s on Embassy, however: Wheelchairs and thick carpet don’t mix. A few months of wheelies laboring across that carpet will ruin it, and maybe then they’ll replace it with a nice, hard surface.

2) Narrow aisles

Embassy’s handicap room is smaller than the normal rooms, and it contains two double beds. There’s a narrow aisle to reach the “bedroom” area and not enough room to really turn a wheelchair around without a lot of effort.

Doesn’t bother me much after a year; I simply back out the way I came, probably bumping into a few doorways and pieces of furniture while I go. I protect The Leg like a zealot, but I still wound up scraaaaaaaping my foot against walls when I reached a clearing big enough for a turn. Yee-ouch.

Obvious solution: ONE bed in a room that small.

3) Short, steep ramps

Couldn’t figure out why, but Embassy chose to put a 30-degree slope on the half-tile entering the bathroom. Getting into the bathroom was an effort; getting out was dangerous, because the wheelchair would suddenly shoot down the incline, across the floor, into the fridge.

That was one time the thick carpet was a GOOD idea; it probably slowed my precipitous crash into the fridge.

4) Not enough grab bars

Here’s the deal: If you CAN stand (and I can), transferring yourself from wheelchair to chair, or wheelchair to toilet, is relatively easy. You stabilize your footing on the good leg, grab TWO stabilizing points to make a tripod, and lever yourself to a standing position. Then you pivot and sit.

You need TWO stabilizing points. Two. One grab bar is NOT two. The obvious choice in this photo, the sink, would be a mistake: Any weight on it, and it starts to come off the wall.

I solved the problem by choosing my own wheelchair as the second stabilizing point, but it’s a more awkward (and therefore more dangerous) option. Thank heavens that at least the toilet was of proper height and not the toddler-sized menace it was in the “normal” bathroom.

5) Poorly placed power outlets

You want to shave, blow-dry your hair, whatever, you want a power outlet. There obviously was supposed to be one on the accessible bathroom wall by the sink, a bit too high but usable. Embassy, however, had covered that up in favor of an even higher outlet on the opposite wall, by the door.

Want to see what you’re doing in the bathroom mirror? Better bring an extension cord.

6) No place to store stuff

Wheelchair users need towels and toiletries, too. The Embassy Suites “accessible” bathroom put towels on a bathroom table.

Great idea, except it left little room for the actual wheelchair and they had to take it out.

That meant the only place left for towels was the back of the toilet, which wasn’t really wide enough to keep them there. And shampoo, soap, etc., were placed at the back of the loooooong sink, making it a challenging reach.

I tried moving them up to the front of the sink for easy accessibility, but the sink sloped too much for anything to stay put.

And the less said about the robe hook, located ‘way up at the top of the bathroom door, the better.

7) Bad shower design

Embassy got the “roll-in” part right; I was able to easily roll into the shower, although it was narrow enough that the entire chair wouldn’t fit in the enclosure (meaning that the floor was going to get wet and become a slipping hazard).

They missed on almost everything else, though. The bathroom was small enough that it was difficult to turn around, even after I’d removed the towel-holding table. I’m good at full 360-in-place maneuvers, so I could do it; if you can’t do a tight 90-degree turn in your chair, getting into the shower here would be a challenge.

There was only one grab bar to hold onto, and not enough stability to hang onto the obvious second point, the adjustable shower head holder.

I can stand for about 15 minutes before things become too painful; it would be better if I could sit. I showered standing up, and that’s when I discovered that the type of grab bar Embassy uses becomes unbelievably slick if soap even looks at it. Gnurled or textured bars would be better. I nearly slipped twice.

Soap dishes and showerhead holders were in awkward spots, too. Not a fatal error, but it made actually getting the spray to land on you (while bracing yourself on the grab bar and trying to balance) rather difficult.

Tonight I’ll ask Embassy if they have a shower bench I can use. Hopefully that will help.

This IS the remodel

The poor desk clerk who showed me the room got all this and more when she asked for my opinion. “Please, tell your architects that the next time they remodel this place, they need to pay attention to this stuff.”

She blushed. “Uhm…I hate to say it, but this IS the remodel.”

Oh, brother…

‘* i.e., you’re in a wheelchair



  1. Joyce September 28, 2017 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Yes, Cynthia, please write when you can.
    I read all your stories and I care.
    Great health from now forward. J

  2. Jeri Warhaftig, September 28, 2017 at 6:56 am - Reply

    I echo many of the comments here but in particular wish you well on the next surgery. I’m praying for super skilled surgeons and healthy bone growth. You are one of the most amazing people I know (in cyber space!). Jeri

  3. Kathy Engholm September 27, 2017 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    If this were 30 years ago, you’d have a much better chance of getting an “accessible room.” When I traveled a lot for work in the US and internationally in the late 80s and the 90s I was given “handicapped rooms” around 25% of the time simply for being a female business traveler. Generally they had huge bathrooms and large showers with barrier-free floors and fabric curtains. I wasn’t well-enough informed on the complete needs of folks with wheels on their butts, so I can’t say whether the rooms were truly accessible or not, but the sinks had the same problem you pointed out: no stable place to put your own toiletries.
    The greatest percentage of my assigned rooms were either next to the elevator or ice machine or had broken furniture (like mattress fallen through the bed frame and laying crookedly on the floor) or plumbing (hot water faucets not working). The guys didn’t believe I was really being given bad rooms because of being a woman (In Amsterdam, THEY got coffee and a newspaper delivered to THEIR rooms each morning with a fresh flower. I had to go to the front desk each morning to beg for a single towel to replace the one I had asked for the day before, which was then taken away by Housekeeping.), but I started showing them every room as we made our way city-by-city around the world. It really opened their eyes. Even when a man would request I be given a different room, the response was always, “We are completely full.” Hotels are doing much better now for women travelers, but it sounds like they’re failing on mobility issues.

  4. Ted Bach September 27, 2017 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    Yeah … aren’t wheelchairs and hotels a great combination?? As I have mentioned before, our eldest son (now 55 years old) has been paraplegic since birth … we were rudely introduced to this unforgiving outside world very quickly. He had braces and crutches until he was in his mid teens when he made the choice to use a wheelchair instead … the atrophy in his legs is unbelievable, but the choice was his … regrettably. Our worst experience was at Disneyland, in the years before the park became more disability conscious. Getting him on and off rides was ridiculous, because many of them didn’t stop … we had to lift and run to “catch” a car. My view of Disneyland – even today – has been tainted by that experience. I really do hate the place!

    I love your take on the disability unconscious world that surrounds us … it is eloquent, truthful, and uplifting … you have not lost your gift for finding humor in the craziest places and situations.

    Hope everything goes well for you and Elmo. Some suggested reading … John Callahan … cartoonist and writer … from the aspect of a recovering alcoholic, recovering catholic, and quadriplegic. I have several of his cartoon collection books … they literally send me to the floor, but I find that “typical” people respond quite differently. Our son taught me that I can humor in anything … because I have to in order to survive.

    Ride on … give my best to Elmo and Spiffy!

    Ted Bach (also a fellow glassworker)
    Hillsboro, OR

  5. kathryncecelia September 27, 2017 at 8:54 pm - Reply

    Your comments are thorough and well documented… I would think a letter to corporate would net you a free stay or at least a reduced rate the next time you travel. When I get these types of situations I begin to write in my journal everyone’s name and the date/time I spoke with them. I also have no problem asking for the head person… I have traveled with a couple of groups and in one a friend named Chris would never take a room until she’d seen it. Back in the 80’s I thought that was rather snotty of her; but her rooms were always very nice, and often she was given an upgrade. I thought wow, if she can get that much more mileage by asking to see the room, discussing her needs and then refusing a room or going on to see another; I’ve thought there were times I should have taken that page from her book… but if I were in your condition I think I’d get more pushy on check in… if the desk help was with you when you gave a critique they’d see how awful their room was and, I would hope, show you a better room… Your journey in your wheelchair is one that many of us can only read about and try to understand. I greatly appreciate that you tell your story so all can see the issues. I have been thinking since reading your conundrum that the hotel doesn’t go all out for handicapped because when not needed there are people who’d make a big deal about grab bars being ugly, or the room not have the right ambiance for the money… so they error with the handicapped and hope the other patrons don’t get their noses out of joint. We leave on Thursday for a one month vacation (first one in ages) to New England and the Canadian Maritimes. I have requested a room with grab bars, because even though I’m much improved from by bilateral knee replacement, it helps to have a safe place to grab, especially if the tile floor gets wet. I will look at this room with a new found respect thanks to your review. You’re in my prayers for a great review, surgery and recovery… If I ever had to describe you in one word I’d pick “spunky”. As you meet all the challenges Life throws your way with an attitude that they may slow you down, but they can’t stop your forward progress… reminiscent of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”. You have us, who read your journey with mirth and pathos, on your side. Give ’em hell. Kick butt and take names. I look forward to your next exploit on this journey to save Elmo.

  6. Nancy_de September 27, 2017 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    I blindly believed/hoped that things had improved for accessibility. Clearly NOT. Glad you’re here in CA on your path. Wishing you all the best!

  7. Nancy Goodenough September 27, 2017 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    Oh, jeez. Hope they get led to this blog to see the error of their ways. I hope the meeting with the medical team went well. And the surgery! Talk to us when you can. n

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