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Shower shaming

If anecdotal information is any indication of the true extent of inaccessible showers, as many as 80% could be off-limits to disabled hotel guests. WheelchairTravel.org founder John Morris has assessed hundreds of accessible hotel rooms, and he reports that ADA compliance is “rare” – particularly in the bathroom.

Local building inspectors don’t check accessible hotel bathrooms because they believe it to be an ADA regulation which is the responsibility of the feds, and the federal government doesn’t have the resources to inspect every hotel in America. Hoteliers, who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being in the middle of architects, contractors and regulators, get 100% of the blame for compliance issues. 

I’ve been a member of the Accessible Travel Club, a private Facebook group with nearly 13,000 members, for over two years. It is a group of disabled travelers who are both engaging and willing to answer questions about the destinations and hotels they’ve experienced firsthand.  After noticing a recent surge in the number of comments about showers in accessible hotel bathrooms, I decided to take a closer look and what I found was a revelation. 

Earlier this fall, Sylvia Longmire, a former Miss Wheelchair America and a prolific blogger, posted daily about a road trip from Orlando to Houston for a Formula One Grand Prix event and concert. She expressed frustration that five of the six hotel rooms had shower handles that were not reachable from the shower chair because they were not positioned correctly. She was forced to take sponge baths which made the trip stressful.

Variations in the design of “accessible” American hotel showers often makes them impossible to use for many travelers with disabilities.

John Morris, who also operates the Accessible Development Group consultancy, reports that although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires a fixed seat on the sidewall of a roll-in shower, many hotels instead offer a portable chair.

“That’s what a lot of people are forced into… and you have no guarantee that it’s actually been properly assembled, or will be secure, or will even meet your needs,” Morris told USAE News, which first broke this story, noting that many portable chairs have much less surface area than ADA-approved wall-mounted seats.

Even “accessible” bathrooms are often improperly designed so that the fold-down shower seat is on the opposite wall from the showerhead, making it impossible for visitors already seated to access the water source.

It’s really something that should be addressed at the design stage or, at least during a renovation cycle when hotels could just move the chair from one wall to another.

Morris told USAE News that he visited a Miami airport hotel in September 2019. After being given a portable shower chair in his first room he requested another room. The next shower included a built-in seat, but no hand-held showerhead; he tried a third room, which offered a built-in shower seat and a hand-held showerhead installed out of reach of the seat.

“This same level of inconsistency, although it’s seen in this one hotel, is sort of an example of what people are finding across the industry,” Morris said.

In another Florida hotel, the roll-in shower had no seat and the hotel staff had no portable chair to offer — the manager brought Morris a lounge chair from the swimming pool, saying it was the best she could do.

Morris, who uses a wheelchair, has stayed in at least 500 different hotels, over 400 of which he estimates had unusable shower set-ups. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many hotels don’t offer accessible guest room or amenity photographs on their websites.

Debra Kerper, owner of Easy Access Travel, who is a wheelchair user and travel agent, recently stayed in a hotel where there wasn’t enough room between the shower and toilet for her wheelchair. At check-out she complained to the manager and they quietly offered her a refund. “My clients complain about this all the time,” she told me, which means it can grow into another factor that will affect hotel revenues.

“When a hotel does make their showers accessible, they earn loyalty from the community of travelers with disabilities, who become regular customers as the information is shared” on sources like Morris’ wheelchair travel blog, Morris told USAE News.

What’s amazing is that it’s not really the fault of the hoteliers as most don’t even realize they have this problem because these glaring flaws have been passed through the chain of architects, designers and construction managers undetected for 31 years. It’s another case of bureaucrats in silos not communicating with one another. 

City inspectors don’t inspect accessible rooms because it’s an ADA regulation and they believe it’s the federal government’s job to inspect accessible rooms, but the feds don’t have the manpower to conduct inspections, which is why so many hoteliers are shocked when they learn their showers are not compliant. 

Renovating a hotel shower can be complex–if you can even find someone to provide an estimate. 

TravelAbility contacted Dave Beerson Construction, a 5-star rated contractor, who specializes in accessible bathroom renovations, and was told they declined commercial bathroom work as it was difficult to provide a quote which could require expensive tile removal just to find what was behind the walls. Meanwhile, an interim solution for hoteliers may be the portable shower chair, but there is a maze of options on the market. Here’s a review of five top shower chairs on the market by Lo’Aid. However, moving forward, the problem needs brought to the attention of the people responsible for designing and construction during renovation cycle. 

This spring the annual Hospitality and Design Expo and Conference will be held from April 26 to April 28 in Las Vegas. This event presents a strong opportunity to raise awareness to a group of architects, hotel room designers, and senior-level executives about the pervasiveness of this problem, how easy it is to remedy, and to make the hotel guest experience more comfortable for millions of people. 

As the number of Baby boomers–40% of whom, according to Health Day, age into a disability after they turn 65–triples over the next six years, demand for inclusive hotel rooms will be even greater and more vociferous. They may even be able to avoid federal legal action in the future.