inaccessible (non-handicapped) bathroom

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.

On Friday night, Sept. 16, 2016, I fractured my left femur just above Elmo, my replacement knee. I lived in a wheelchair, facing hip-high amputation of my left leg, for about two years while I fought health care bureaucracy, cost-conscious HMOs, and myself to figure out a way to walk again. (Spoiler alert: Elmo won!)

I documented my adventures in remobilization in this blog. They’re awfully self-indulgent, occasionally icky, and probably only of interest to me, but on the off-chance that they help someone else with a catastrophic injury, I’m keeping them together here. If you don’t want to read them, that’s OK; I still love you. If you do, you might want to start from the beginning, on the archive page that lists all posts.

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.”

It was late, I was exhausted, and other hotels were full. I had no choice; I took the room. Despite raising holy hell with Embassy and parent company Marriott, the best I could do was a promise of an accessible room the following night.

And under the fake, “customer-is-always-right” smiles I sensed an impatient undercurrent: “Geeez, what a fussy b****. Why can’t you just shut up and go to your room? It can’t be THAT hard.”

Yes, it can. (grump, grump)

Totally miserable night. I couldn’t bathe: The glass shower door was hinged, not sliding, and the room was too small for the doors to swing open with my wheelchair inside. A 4-inch curb made it impossible to get my wheelchair into the shower anyway, and there was no seat inside.

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

I made a sketchy spongebath and went to bed feeling grimy. The sink was too small, so I couldn’t wash my hair in the morning. I met my new surgical team greasy, grouchy, and groggy from lack of sleep.

Memo to Marriott: 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? .

When I returned that afternoon, exhausted and sore from medical poking and prodding, I was met by an incredibly apologetic hotel manager. From the sounds of it, he’d been read the riot act by Marriott Corporate). He moved me to a “wheelchair accessible room,” and that’s when it became clear: Embassy Suites (and Marriott) don’t really get (or care about) wheelchair accessibility. They may check the minimal ADA boxes, but that’s about it.

My new “accessible” room was beautiful although much smaller than my “normal” room of the previous night. It was also completely unsuitable for wheelies. Here’s why:

1) It had carpet. Thick, plush carpet.

Carpet looks great, is cleanable, and muffles sound, but YOU try wheeling on it. You’ll find it’s strength-sapping, rather like rowing through quicksand.

The entire “accessible” room (except for the bathroom) was covered in a beautifully patterned, brand new carpet.

Joke’s on Embassy, however: Wheelchairs and thick carpet don’t mix. I could already see the damage my wheelchair was doing after one night–a few months of that, and this carpet will be threadbare. Maybe then they’ll replace it with a nice, hard surface.

2) Big wheelchair in narrow aisles? Yeah, right.

Unlike most accessible rooms, Embassy’s smaller than the normal rooms, yet stuffed to the gills with two double beds. There’s barely enough room for one wheelchair to even enter the space, let alone allow two people to stay to occupy those beds when one of them just ate all the space with wheels. Even when Mom had found her own bed in a different room, wheeling around in such a small space takes a LOT of effort.

Fortunately, after a year of hard wheeling, I’m very good at going backwards. I simply back out of the space, dinging and scraping doorways and furniture as I go. Normally I protect The Leg like an angry mamma bear with her cubs, but the room was so small I still scraaaaaaaaaaaped my foot against walls trying to maneuver.


Hey, Marriott: Do the obvious: Put only ONE bed in a small room. Or–because wheelies can often have caregivers who need to stay by their patients: Make the bloody room at least as big as the ones you give to normals.

3) Short, steep ramps–crash!!

Embassy chose to put a 30-degree slope on the half-tile entering the bathroom. That made getting into the bathroom a bit like climbing a mountain. Getting out, however, was dangerous; lose control of your wheels and your chair shoots down that incline and into the fridge.

That was the only time that damned carpet was a GOOD idea. The first time I exited the bathroom–surprise!–it slowed my precipitous crash into the fridge.

4) Not enough grab bars

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  standing position. Then you pivot and sit.

I said TWO stabilizing points. Two. Dear Marriott: One grab bar is NOT two.

Most people, seeing only one grab bar, will go for the obvious: Bracing against the sink. (See photo) That’s a mistake: Even a little weight on that sink starts to pull it off the wall.

I solved the problem by locking my wheelchair and using it as the second stabilizing point. That’s awkward and therefore still not safe. Thank heavens that at least the toilet was of proper height and not the toddler-sized menace it was in the previous night’s “normal” bathroom.

5) Outlets we have seen on high

Clearly, Marriott had intended to add an electrical outlet by the sink, a little too high but at least nearly accessible.

As you can see in the photos, though, they inexplicably covered that with a blank plate; the only outlet in the room was on the opposite wall, near the exit, and ‘way too high to reach easily.

Apparently Marriott believes that people in wheelchairs don’t actually shave, blow-dry, etc…or maybe that they don’t need to look in a mirror.

6) No place to store stuff

Strangely, wheelchair users need towels and toiletries, too. Marriott put a table in the tiny bathroom to hold linens…but it ate the space I needed for my wheelchair so I dragged it out.

There was literally no other surface for any linens, soap, etc., except the narrow toilet tank.

Shampoo, soap, etc., were placed at the back of the loooooong sink, a challenging reach from a wheelchair. The sink sloped too much to keep them up front; I finally settled for just dumping them into the sink.

The less said about the only clothing hook–at the top of the bathroom door–the better.

7) Shower design from…heck

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 in the shower. The adjustable shower head rail LOOKED like a grab bar, but wasn’t stable enough to hold anything.

I can stand for a few minutes before things become too painful; accessible showers usually have fold-down seats or a plastic shower bench. This one didn’t, so my choices were showering with the wheelchair half-inside, or taking a VERY SHORT shower standing up. I chose the latter, which is how I discovered that the type of grab bar Embassy uses becomes unbelievably slick in the presence of soap. Gnurled or textured bars would be better. I nearly slipped twice.

Soap dish and shower head were in awkward spots, too. I had to work hard to get the spray to land in the vicinity of my body, all the while sliding up and down on the grab bar, trying to keep from crashing to the floor.

Tonight I’ll ask the hotel manager if I can borrow a shower bench. Sigh.

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…well, this IS the remodel.”


‘* i.e., you’re in a wheelchair