Hotel Accessibility Reaches the Supreme Court
As a wheelchair user with multiple disabilities, travel is unpredictable at best and completely inaccessible at worst. In order to book my trips, I have to trust the accuracy of the websites run by hotels, airlines, car rental companies and more to learn whether I can use their services (i.e., have the honor of paying them my hard-earned money.) The Americans with Disabilities Act requires hotels to include enough of their accessibility features on their website that a person with a disability can judge whether their hotel would be safe and usable. Unfortunately, the features they include are often incomplete or inaccurate.
Hotels rarely identify what types of accommodations are available in their "accessible" rooms. At times, I will arrive to find my room is accessible for someone with an auditory disability but not for a mobility disability like mine. While not necessary for me, having a visual or tactile fire alarm in their room could be the difference between life and death in an emergency for someone with an auditory disability. Hotels often take a kitchen sink approach to accessibility, throwing in a visual accommodation here and a mobility accommodation there, but failing to provide full accessibility to either group. This overlooks the point of accessibility, effectively making the room useless to many disabled travelers.
This "too little, too late" approach applies across the board with hotel accommodations. On three of my recent trips, I found that the shower in my room did not have a bench to transfer onto. Hotels ought to have shower chairs available in these scenarios; frequently, they do not, leaving me no choice but to lay or sit on the floor of a shower to clean myself. My friend Michelle, who uses a wheelchair, can't shower at all in these situations. On three of five recent trips, Michelle has found herself assigned to an inaccessible room despite booking an accessible one. Even in "accessible" rooms, beds may be too high for people to transfer out of their wheelchairs safely, leaving some travelers to sleep in their wheelchairs.
My friend Alex, who also uses a wheelchair, shared that she must rely on her husband every time she travels to fill in gaps in hotel accessibility, from assistance transferring to navigating the room itself. Furniture regularly crowds hotel rooms in a way that leaves little room to maneuver a wheelchair, scooter or walker. When we have to ask the hotel to remove some of this furniture, it can result in the removal of the very amenities we paid for -- a desk to work remotely, for example. Unreliable accessibility makes it challenging or impossible for people with disabilities to travel independently; we simply do not know what lies on the other side of the door, forcing us to plan ahead and rely on others in anticipation of barriers.
The law only requires hotels to make a small percentage of their rooms accessible, compounding the problems disabled travelers face. Twice in the last year, I have arrived at a hotel only to be told that, despite having paid for early check-in, I would have to wait several hours in the lobby for the room's current resident to depart. When pressed, it became apparent that it was the only accessible room available in the hotel, leaving me no choice but to wait. This problem often occurs because hotels will assign nondisabled patrons to their very limited number of accessible rooms to maximize profits -- at the expense of disabled patrons' access.
The upcoming Supreme Court case Acheson Hotels v. Laufer illustrates how hotels often fail travelers with disabilities, and offers an opportunity to solidify our right to hold hotels and other public accommodations accountable for these failures. Deborah Laufer, a person with disabilities, sued Acheson Hotels LLC for failing to make clear whether the hotel was accessible on their website as required by the ADA. Now, the issue before the Supreme Court is whether Laufer can sue Acheson even though she has not visited their hotels and is not likely to. She is what many call a civil rights "tester." Being a tester in civil rights cases is an honored and necessary role. It has evolved over the years, from Black patrons trying to enter a "whites only" waiting room, to women applying for typically male jobs, to families applying to "singles only" housing. In each case, the tester has no intention of taking the job or renting the housing -- but, as a member of the class of people facing discrimination, can go to court to enforce civil rights laws.
As we outlined in a friend-of-the-court brief filed last week in the case, as a person with disabilities, Laufer is harmed, like any traveler with a disability, by Acheson's failure to provide equal access to its accommodations. Laufer has every right to assert disabled people's right to access knowledge of accessibility features; without it, how can we make informed decisions about where we will stay? How do we know the rooms will preserve our dignity by not leaving us to sit on the floor of showers or sleep in our wheelchairs? Allowing testers such as Laufer to bring suit is a necessary component of enforcing disability law and promoting broad compliance with the ADA.
Travel may be a luxury, but accessibility is a necessity and a right. Until we make accessibility features widely and consistently available, travelers with disabilities will continue to face barriers and indignities where our nondisabled peers do not.
Lucy Trieshmann is a fellow with the ACLU Disability Rights Program. For more than 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, the ACLU takes on the toughest civil liberties fights in pursuit of liberty and justice for all. To find out more about the ACLU and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.
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