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No Room at the Inn: Why Disabled People Struggle to Book Hotels

October 9, 2023
Source: Washington Post

Staying in hotels can be a harrowing experience for people with disabilities. When Julie Reiskin, 58, tried to book an accessible room in Chicago, she got one with no roll-in shower. In D.C., the bed was too high. Throughout her travels, she’s often had to go days without bathing and has had to sleep in her power wheelchair.

This is a common experience for disabled people like her, many of whom say they regularly experience problems staying in hotels and using their amenities.

But most don’t have the time or resources to sue over these issues, advocates said. Despite the decades-long existence of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a sweeping civil rights law that mandates accessibility in public spaces, the barriers are still too pervasive.

“Every time we face discrimination, we have to calculate whether we’ll deal with it,” said Reiskin, a disability advocate in Denver. “You can’t deal with every problem otherwise you’d be doing it all the time.”

So some people with disabilities have taken on the job of being “testers.” They investigate accessibility issues and may file lawsuits so others won’t encounter the same barriers. The role of testers is at the heart of a case now before the Supreme Court.

The case concerns Deborah Laufer, a tester who argues a small Maine hotel discriminated against her because its website didn’t include required accessibility information. The hotel’s attorneys say Laufer doesn’t have grounds to sue because she never actually intended to stay there.

Business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have argued that ADA lawsuits burden small businesses and the court system.

Though the Supreme Court may drop the case for complex legal reasons, it has nonetheless sparked a conversation about how disability civil rights are enforced and the challenges people with disabilities still face in finding accessible lodging when they travel.

When booking a hotel is overwhelming

Reiskin, who has also worked as a tester, recalls staying in only a few hotels where she could board the airport shuttle.

She said she wouldn’t have been capable of filing lawsuits against each of these hotels on her own, but she was able to work as a tester for a disability rights organization to call dozens of hotels and see if they had an accessible shuttle.

“This has to be dealt with systemically. You can’t deal with it one at a time,” she said.

And simply requesting accommodations doesn’t usually work, said Yvette Pegues, who uses a wheelchair.

At hotels, she’s found bathroom entrances too small, beds too high and air conditioning units out of reach. She said she usually tries to talk to business owners about these issues and sometimes will send letters explaining the barriers she encountered and how to fix them.

Most businesses don’t make changes following this feedback, she said.

This is not unusual, advocates said, because many businesses tend to wait until they’re sued before spending money on making changes.

“I think the law is looked at as a suggestion,” said Pegues, 36, of Canton, [Georgia]. “People just don’t care. It makes me feel rejected in the world.”

This feeling of rejection and exclusion from public places is common among disabled people, said Jasmine Harris, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who co-authored an article in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review describing how disabled people have struggled while traveling.

Despite a legal requirement for hotels to disclose information about their property’s accessibility features in reservation systems, disabled people say they regularly encounter hotel websites with misleading and inaccurate information — or no information at all.

Not putting accessibility information onto a business’s website may not sound like a big deal, Harris said, but it furthers disabled people’s sense of exclusion and makes the process of booking a hotel room and traveling more difficult.

Some of the disabled people surveyed in her article said they had to send over a dozen emails and call the same business multiple times to figure out if they could get the accommodations they needed. Others found the process of figuring out accommodations so overwhelming that they choose to stay home instead.

“They come to expect inaccessibility,” she said. “And people just opt out again and again.”

Challenges in enforcing accessibility rules

Some disabled people say it can be intimidating to file a lawsuit against a hotel or restaurant. They say testers tend to face criticism and have been accused of shaking down businesses for their own gain. They also say it can be a tedious process, and they generally don’t get any money out of it.

The way the law is written, those who file these types of lawsuits typically can only seek reimbursement for legal fees and out-of-pocket costs.

Some state laws, such as California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, make it so that plaintiffs can get money for damages, which contributes to the fact that the bulk of ADA litigation tends to be concentrated in those states, said Rabia Belt, a Stanford Law School professor and legal historian who focuses on disability.

The lack of monetary damages also means that lawyers usually only get paid for the hours they work, said Gregory Sconzo, an attorney in Florida who focuses on disability discrimination cases.

He and other legal experts said that it is usually only economically worthwhile for lawyers to work on these cases if they represent testers and file a larger amount of lawsuits.

Sconzo has represented one client in over a thousand lawsuits related to accessibility barriers. Most of his cases resulted in settlements, Sconzo said, with businesses being ordered to fix issues, such as adding pool lifts.

The Department of Justice does investigate ADA noncompliance and can pursue lawsuits, but in a brief for the Supreme Court case, it said that private lawsuits, including those brought by testers, were an “essential complement” to the federal government’s enforcement of these types of laws. In their own filing, disability organizations argued that the government “cannot keep up with the rampant rates of noncompliance.”

But Chip Rogers, the president and chief executive of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said the cost of litigating these cases could push small businesses into bankruptcy.

“For years, hoteliers have been on the receiving end of lawsuits or letters threatening lawsuits from serial litigants who pursue hundreds of hotels and other businesses at a time,” Rogers said.

In 2012, there were roughly 3,000 non-employment ADA lawsuits, representing a little over 1 percent of all federal civil cases. In 2022, the amount of lawsuits climbed to around 9,300, representing about 3.5 percent of all cases.

Belt said overall, a relatively small percentage of businesses get sued. The rise in cases may be because the country’s aging population has led to more disability overall, she said, and because disabled people born after the ADA was passed in 1990 are coming of age.

This “post-ADA generation” has come to expect accessibility as a right and may be more willing to file lawsuits now that they are adults, she said.

Another factor contributing to the increase is the internet. Businesses can easily reach more consumers, but Belt said it has also meant that disabled consumers have more frequently encountered accessibility barriers simply by being online.

Little awareness of the barriers

Part of the reason these issues persist is because people don’t understand the importance of the ADA or what it is meant to provide, said Jeremy Warriner, 48, of Indianapolis.

He also said businesses may not realize they are violating the law.

Warriner worked in the hospitality industry for over a decade and managed various hotels throughout his career. But in both his formal education and his workplace trainings, he said he learned very little about the ADA and how to implement it.

It wasn’t until he became a double-leg amputee after a car accident 18 years ago that he understood the importance of having accommodations, he said.

After his accident, he realized the only automatic, accessible door he could go through to get into the hotel where he worked didn’t function. When he questioned staff, he was told it hadn’t been working for years.

“I run into these things everywhere I go and I didn’t see it until I became a person with a disability who has to rely on the ADA,” he said.

Warriner has never filed a lawsuit over accessibility because the process seems too tedious. But he has tried another approach.

He’s often unable to use the accessible parking spaces at a local coffee shop, where cars in the drive-through can block the spaces. After he noticed the problem in March 2021, he repeatedly brought up the problem with the shop managers over the course of two months.

Nothing changed. So he filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.

That was over two years ago, he said, and the problem still has not been fixed.

Related article: High Court to Weigh Whether Disability Activists Can Sue Hotels After Online Searches

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