Guest Commentary: Accessibility, a Short Definition

By Anna Taylor
A Person in a Wheelchair

Since the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, commercial establishments have been trying to comply with the laws with varying success. As for what is accessible and what is not, a simple rule to follow is that if some arrangement is accessible for the less ambulatory, it will be accessible for anyone. Lowering a light switch to a height that can be used by a person in a wheelchair does not make it difficult for an ambulatory person. And in fact,
it might be easier to turn on light switches that are belt level than one that is 5 feet up the wall! The ADA actually makes the world easier to operate
for all people. (Sometime watch how many ambulatory people use the ramps at a ball park as opposed to those using the stairs.)

Hotels, Motels and Bed and Breakfasts

What may seem accessible to the ambulatory traveler isn’t always a good fit to the disabled, but the opposite is not true. If I can use a hotel room successfully, anyone can. I have been to a lot of hotels that advertise accessible rooms which have turned out to be designed and built by people who have never been related to, or known someone who has a handicap. This is ironic because owners spend money to provide accessibility but it is sometimes wasted because they build the wrong things.

The door to a room in a hotel is the first challenge I face. Most of the time these days you must stick a card into the door to unlock it. Then you wait for the light to flash green, and then pull down the handle. But what happens when the handles and door locks on the door are to high and to heavy? The ADA states that doors need to be less then 5lbs force to open. Most doors are heavier than this and if you use a manual chair, trying to open them and push yourself in, it can wear a person out. Changing the doors weight to 5lbs of force to open it, wouldn’t make it any harder for the ambulatory. In fact it might even help them.

The purpose of having a peep hole on the door is so you may see who it is at your door. Most peep holes I have seen are designed for tall people who can stand, and for me that just doesn’t work. There should be one high and low so I can also see who is at my door. It’s a safety concern.

If the room has a balcony it presents a problem for me. Usually the door to the outside is placed in a corner of the room. This is OK but not when you place a table and couch in the same corner. If the door doesn’t open past the table or come from the other side of the wall, it is impossible to get out. This is easily fixed by putting the furniture opposite the opening part of the door.

Furniture in these rooms isn’t always designed well. When placing furniture you must remember that some wheelchairs require more space than others. A table should look good in a room, but should also be functional. Most wood tables do not allow wheelchairs to comfortably fit under them and use the phone, (a speakerphone is best) or even a laptop. There are a few options such as taller tables, or adjustable tables that would make things easier on the user. The best tables and counters are ones that have legs on the corners so that the chair can fit between without hitting them.

Similarly beds, refrigerators, TV and their accessories need to be lowered as well. It is hard for people in wheelchairs to reach above their shoulders. Also it should not be hard to open, get into or turn on. Nightstands should have at least two feet between them and the bed. TV’s do not need to be in a wood cabinet. If it must be that way then put the VCR under the TV’s shelf on it’s own shelf.

Mirrors, sinks and soap dispensers also need to be lower and easy to operate. Some people in wheelchairs do not have full use of their hands and having to turn the water on and off can be difficult. Long level handles are much better then twist handles. Sinks should not have a deep well where the water goes and soap should be in some sort of dispenser that only requires the strength of one hand to push.

A good bathroom and shower is imperative in an accessible room. I’ve been in many hotel bathrooms in my life and this seems to be the hardest place to make accessible. You end up with a wonderful toileting area or the shower as the main focus. A good toileting situation for me would be that the toilet is low to the floor and had a bar on at least one side of it. You want to transfer down to other areas, like to a toilet seat from your chair. The flusher would need to be easy to push or an automatic flusher could be used to accommodate this.

Similarly a good shower has a portable shower head and maybe a bench seat. The problem with the shower is that no one has yet to figure out the seating placement in relationship to the on/off switch and to wheelchair placement. No one is going to want to sit in their wet wheelchair the rest of the day. The term “drive-in shower”, means that you can take your wheelchair close enough to the seating so that you can transfer to the bench with out walking to it. It doesn’t mean you take a shower in your wheelchair. It means that you can get out of your chair and sit on a bench or shower chair. This shouldn’t be a problem for the ambulatory. Lots of people disabled or otherwise, probably would enjoy having a place to sit and shower if they so choose.

Elevators are an important addition to any building to make it accessible. The type of elevator is something to consider when installing one. It would be hard to install an elevator that required you to open the door by hand and call it accessible. They should all be automatic and the buttons should be low and big enough to insure anyone can use them For people with disabilities it’s their only way to access where they need to go and if the equipment doesn’t work, chances are they won’t be repeat consumers.

All counters in hotel lobbies should have a spot that is lowered to wheelchair level. So many times I have not been able to see over the counter to conduct business. I end up having to ask people to help me. Being independent is a goal for people with disabilities and to me it is almost discriminating and more disabling to not even be able to talk to someone face to face.

I enjoy traveling and I enjoy being able to do things on my own. I would be willing to evaluate the hotels I stay in. I don’t think many people are aware of these problems. We need a better solution to the “false idea” of what is accessible. To see an accessible bathroom, visit McDonalds or a local hospital, (see the “public” restrooms), or Chevron gas/markets. These places and many others have got it right.