Knowing Your Rights: Hotel Stays Without Reservation

Web Development inMotion

Volume 9 · Issue 3 · May/June 1999

by Casey Patrick

Image: Hilton HotelHilton’s Shining Example

The Harrisburg Hilton and Towers in Harrisburg, Penn., has taken ADA regulations to heart, and then some.

Targeting a neglected market, the Harrisburg Hilton took advantage of the need for accessible accommodations in its 1990 construction. Despite the requirement of only five accessible rooms, the Hilton boasts 11. And 32-inch wide doorways make every room in the hotel easier to enter using a wheelchair.Fully accessible rooms are private with king-size beds and accommodating bathrooms. They are connected to an adjoining room for attendants and are located directly across from elevators.

The Hilton’s employees are also involved in providing a comfortable visit, taking part in disability sensitivity training sessions to welcome the hotel’s great number of patrons with disabilities.

Kudos to the Harrisburg Hilton and its model for hospitable accommodations!

From business travel to family vacations, Americans faithfully leave their own comfortable beds and baths to stay in hotels and motels, including many of the nearly 50 million with disabilities. It may not be vital to control which pastel poster will inevitably hang above the bed or which sliver of face soap will appear in the bathroom, but details related to accessibility are not a matter of taste. They are your rights.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 empowered people with disabilities with the means to enforce basic accommodation rights, including procedures and technical requirements for accessibility in hotels and motels. The ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) went into effect January 1992, requiring most lodging facilities designed, constructed and altered after certain dates to comply to guidelines under Federal agencies including the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Transportation.

Who is Responsible for What and When?

Alterations and new construction made to facilities after January 26, 1993, are bound to comply with the accessibility laws. Commercial lodging facilities covered by the ADA’s Title III include hotels, motels, inns, boarding houses, dormitories and resorts. Temporary accommodations located within a building that contains no more than five rooms for rent, occupied by the proprietor of the establishment as the residence, are not included. For example, a small bed and breakfast located within someone’s home would not be applicable.

People with accessibility needs have the same options for sleeping arrangements as other patrons. Room size, cost, amenities provided and the number of beds in a room must be comparable to less user-friendly quarters. In order for lodging owners to ensure that all of their guests can be housed, they may choose to make all of their accessible rooms doubles or larger. But if someone requests a single room and the only accessible room available is a double, the person can not be charged for a multiple-occupancy room.

Hotels and motels are required to have a minimum number of accessible rooms with roll-in showers, based on a percentage of the total number of rooms in the establishment. In a hotel with 175 rooms, for example, six accessible rooms, two including roll-in showers, must be furnished. As a rule, the bigger the hotel or motel, the larger the number of accessible rooms.

Accessibility Specifics

Under Section 9.2 of the ADA, accommodations being altered or constructed must provide convenient entry into, out of and around a room. Doors and doorways must be functional. Compliance may require widening gates, or spacing doors in a series farther apart. Double-leaf doors may be modified to include an active leaf and a beveled threshold. Door handles, pulls and locks must not exceed a distance of 48 inches from the floor, and should be operable using one hand without tight grasping or twisting of the wrist. Other controls in the room must be just as functional, with similar specifications for receptacles and equipment. Door width specifications and requirements for power-assisted doors are detailed in the complete ADAAG rules.

User-friendly pathways should connect all accessible spaces and elements within the accommodation, including living rooms, dining areas, at least one sleeping area, telephones and at least one bathroom and parking space. Patios, terraces or balconies must be accessible, unless a higher door threshold is necessary to maintain the integrity of units from wind or water damage, as with beachside patios or ski resort balconies.

If kitchenettes or wet bars are available they must be accessible. This requirement not only applies to gaining access to the kitchen, but also to using kitchen appliances. At least fifty percent of counter, shelf and refrigerator space must not exceed certain heights as outlined in sections 4.2.5 and 4.2.6 of the Accessibility Guidelines, and lodgings should provide clear floor space for movement about the area.

Sufficient maneuvering space must also be provided along both sides of a bed in an accessible room, except where two beds are provided. In a double room 36 inches of space between the two beds satisfies this requirement.

Policies, Practices and Procedures

Part 36 of the ADA provides general requirements regarding policies, practices and procedures in commercial facilities such as hotels or motels to ensure that people with disabilities are afforded any goods or services available to other patrons. If a hotel demonstrates that such a modification would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations, they will be deemed exempt from modification. But the rules are tough to evade.

For example, according to the DOJ’s ADA information on the Internet, if a parking facility at a hotel prohibits vans with raised roofs, an individual who uses a wheelchair-accessible van who wishes to park in that facility could trigger the abolition of such a rule. By demanding ADA compliance the hotel will be forced to alter their policies and accommodate wheelchair users.

Make a Reservation

In order to guarantee a person is provided with an accessible room, a hotel may have to adopt a policy of keeping a room unoccupied until an individual with a disability arrives at the hotel, assuming the person has properly reserved the room. It is good practice to inform hotel personnel of your accessibility needs ahead of time. Making a reservation will not only give you peace of mind, but it will also give the hotel extra time to prepare a comfortable room.

This is not intended to imply that people with disabilities receive preferential treatment. The legislation encourages communication. Therefore it is pertinent to contact the hotel or motel prior to your arrival and discuss any accommodation requirements. Check ahead of time to see if new construction or alterations have been made since the ADA’s specified dates, and inform the hotel of your needs.

Hotels and motels do not have to provide special auxiliary aids or services. This might include special equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers. It is recommended that you bring these items with you on your travels, unless the hotel has assured you ahead of time that they will be available.

Take the Initiative

After a long day of travel, one generally does not welcome arguments with uninformed hotel employees or unexpectedly long waits at check-in. Become familiar with the ADA’s regulations to help avoid such situations and possibly teach the hotel a lesson in accommodation.

The temperature swings in the shower and the color of the carpet in the bedroom can’t be changed through legislation, but by enforcing the ADA rules you can make a more worthwhile improvement. You may not only help yourself, but also set a precedent that benefits the hotel’s future patrons with accessibility needs.

Rules to Travel By

  1. Call as early as possible to make your reservation.
  2. Reserve carefully. Make sure the hotel or motel clerk knows exactly what your disability is and what accommodations you will need upon arrival.
  3. Ask for assurance of accommodations and record the name of the person who gave you the assurance. If necessary, ask to speak with the reservations manager or general manager.
  4. If you have any doubts about dealing with a central reservations service, contact the hotel or motel directly.
  5. Be assertive, calm and friendly, not angry and abusive.
  6. Document, document, document!

Other Information

The Department of Justice’s ADA hotline in Washington, D.C., is 1-800-514-0301. You can also direct questions to a location closer to you by contacting your regional Disability & Business Technical Assistance Center at 800-949-4232. Explanations of other ADA requirements applying to services and operations of hotels and other types of public accommodations may be obtained at either number.

The complete ADA regulations regarding transient lodging can be found online at the DOJ’s Website. Go to to download regulations and publications. Title III and Part 36 are the most relevant sections to hotel and motel accessibility.

For information on the ADA’s rules regarding air travel, see Knowing Your Rights Can Make Flying a Breeze in the July/August 1998 issue of InMotion.