Thursday, May 18, 2006

Nag for Victory!

I'm currently nursing a poorly shoulder and searching for accommodation for my latest work trip.

I'll be away for a week this time. Usually it's one or two nights. Lots of variety at the moment, because hotels in the town I am working in have very varied notions of what disability access is. Luckily I can use crutches a bit for short distances and put weight through my good right knee joint, but quite frankly, if I couldn't, most hotels would be virtually unusable on my own.

On the first visit, I stayed in an establishment with 'quality' in it's name. Oh dear. On arriving in the car park, I sighted a ramp so steep it was clearly impossible. At the top of it, like evil icing on a rancid cake, was a door that opened outwards, waiting to knock any pioneering crip who reached the top of the ramp sideways off the steep incline as they attempted to enter.

I'm beginning to see how many hotels get around access obligations by making little adjustments here and there that are really designed to have an underlying message saying "Not You"! On the face of it, they meet DDA requirements. So, it's usually a war of nerves when I drive up, being ever so polite with an underlying message to the hotel that lousy 'adjustments' Will Not Do.

My coping strategy for these inevitable situations is to sit in the car park and phone them up. Then I say something along the lines of "I'm a lone disabled woman, very tired, who has just driven 150 miles to get to your establishment that you swore was fully accessible, only to find I'm stuck in your car park because (delete where applicable);

a) Your manager has parked his Jaguar in the only disabled parking space
b) You neglected to tell me the car park was a gravel filled crater 800 yards away from the entrance
c) The portable ramp you told me would be in place from midday today appears to have vanished
d) The ramp that is actually in place will kill me if I attempt to use it

So far nobody has expressed a desire to see my imminent demise, although I'm sure some have been silently intoning "Oh no..." under their breath as they saunter out into the car park with a look of innocent confusion as I point out a stunningly obvious detail that they'd never seen before. I guess smug is a bad look really.

On this particular occasion, the manageress of quality establishment that I was staying in decided to push me up the evil ramp, whereupon we came to a dead halt at it's partner-in-crime, the outwards opening door.

"Could you open that?" asked my pushee.

I tried. It was locked.

"Oh, it needs a key," she said, letting go of one handle of the chair to fish in her pocket. We slid down the ramp in a gentle sideways manner whereupon she halted my backwards descent by getting the toe of a rather nice pair of shoes under my back wheel. (I fought the urge to point out this was Really Not My Fault, and If Only...).

Armed with the key, we tried again. I was impressed as she pre-empted the opening of the door outwards by backing me down the ramp, and then shoving the chair up it again with such force I shot over the threshold and narrowly missed the wall directly in front of me.

Next obstacle was some deep red plush carpet. You can't really admonish hotels for having soft carpets, but to someone who self propels, you might as well be pushing through sand or grass. Another two thresholds, one narrow corridor lined with little tables and floor-strewn bed sheets later, and we were in the room. The hotel had an extension, and their accessible room was the furthest away from the main part of the hotel, where the bar, the breakfast room, reception, and the dining room were.

Ever get the feeling people don't want you around? Anyway...

Another frequently overlooked thing with many hotels is that the shower head in the so-called accessible bathroom is often mounted over the bath taps, on the wall at standing height. You have to get in the bath, stand up - which is difficult if you can't or there are no handrails in the right place - and unhook it. I usually shower sitting down, so something 5 foot above my head when I'm sitting in the bath is no good to me. If I have someone accompanying me to the room, I always ask them to wait whilst I check out the bathroom, so if this needs doing they can do it for me.

It is here I realise many staff simply haven't had good access training, and are scared of what a disabled person might ask them to do. A crip going into a bathroom saying "follow me in here a minute, would you?" puts the fear of god into them! Some are a wee bit too keen though, which scares me just as much. After I'd explained it was only because I needed help unhooking the showerhead, one young man asked me three times if I was sure I didn't need help going to the toilet or getting in the bath. I hastily looked around for the closest weapon to hand, it being a rather scruffy toilet brush, and happily he thought better of it.

What follows is usually a question "Is everything all right for you?"

I used to say yes, then wait for them to leave before scooting round the room tutting at anything unsuitable, like heavy chairs in the way, or the hairdryer out of my reach. Now I ask them to wait whilst I check. I don't enjoy complaining, as you might think, but I do want to be comfortable - and I just can't help being bemused at the kind of set ups I frequently encounter. This is because I'm a fairly able wheelchair user. I'm pretty sure if I can't manage on this basis, any room that puports to be physically accessible to a wheelchair user would be a nightmare for anyone with less ability to get around.

If you see something that isn't right, for you, or the crip that comes after, I strongly believe you should say something to the hotel. Moaning about it after you leave is a bit weasel-minded, if you ask me. How are people going to know if they're not told? There's no need to be rude - especially if there is something they can do for you to make it easier. Staying away is now a fact of life - I don't want to be throwing fits every time I go somewhere, especially not as I'm fast beginning to realise nowhere is perfect. I like traveling. It puts me in a cheerful mood. Of course, I miss Mr Fang greatly, but I also enjoy being independent, often getting great pleasure from being able to solve these obstacles in an affable manner. Mediation is the key, and if they're going to see your business again, a few gentle words of encouragement.

This is where money can play a part, for better or for worse. Discounts for disabled people can be a contentious issue. I'm happy to pay in full - if I'm getting the same service as everybody else - and not take a concession. If the service is limited because of poor access, especially if I've been told this is not the case, I'll ask for a further discount of some kind. Negotiating stuff like this shouldn't be awkward and it can be be a way of offloading any justified frustration. If you get someone with a bit of brain they might even learn something. (That reminds me - must go on holiday somewhere I can use my new haggling skills...).

My usual compromise if it's a long way to the restaurant and the room turns out to be difficult to use, is to ask for room service without the supplement they charge for delivering it to your room. In addition, many room service menus don't offer the same meals you get in the restaurant. If you can't can't go there, then ask to be able to choose from the restaurant menu as well. Most of the time, if the discussion is friendly, hotels seem happy to accommodate this. The situation will be in your favor if they've just seen you struggle to do something they do without thinking.

This 'quality' place with awful access turned out to have a lovely manageress, who made sure I could order anything I liked on room service, waived the charge for my (modest, promise) bar bill, and promised to change the ramp to a 1 in 12 gradient. Whether she will or not, I don't know, but next week I will visit to see if she has. When someone appears to be genuinely concerned about the difficulties we face, I'm always curious to know if they've forgotten about it the next morning.

If not, I'll follow it up with a gentle phone call reminding her the service far outshone their access, and I'd be happy to give them my money again (not to mention receive free glasses of wine with room service) if only they'd make me feel a bit more welcome by removing the underlying "Not You!" message from their access provision.


Becca said...

I think I may have had the misfortune to stay at the same 'quality' establishment as you! Was it in a large northeastern city with a rather fab new arts centre, by any chance?

We had to go up a spiral car ramp through the carpark to get into that one, too.

I am going to be staying at an allegedly rather posh hotel in Leeds in a couple of weeks. Shall attempt to apply your technique and see what happens!

Sally's Life said...

Dear Agent Fang
Your posts are so encouraging, entertaining and informative as I fight for normalcy when using my wheelchair; I have linked your blog on my page, I hope that is ok with you.

Agent Fang said...

I'm afraid, Becca, it was in the south east. So there's at least two of the buggers out there. We'll find the rest, in time. Gahhhh. Spiral ramp inna car park too, what class. Hope Leeds was fun. Sally, thanks for the link. I badly need to update my sidebar, I'm afraid, but maybe soon - am not now travelling again for a while. :0)