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  • Writer's picturejkwarriner

Accessibility: Code vs. Practical Application

Before I acquired my disabilities I worked as a Manager in the Hospitality industry. I was aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though no emphasis was placed on my understanding of it's details or it's purpose. All I really knew was that it was a law that said how many rooms and parking spaces we needed to have designated and designed for people with disabilities based on the overall number of rooms or parking spaces that we had. On some level I was aware that it also applied to our non-discriminatory employment policies and procedures but, again, no emphasis was placed on my understanding of this. When I say "no emphasis", I mean that the Americans with Disabilities Act was barely mentioned during my one semester of Hospitality Law that was part of my curriculum at Purdue University's Hospitality & Tourism Management School, and it was not really explored in any of the regular Human Resources or Guest Services related management or line level training provided by my employers, post graduation.

I spent five years as an Assistant General Manager at several hotels, Marriott's and Holiday Inn's, with Winegardner & Hammons, Inc and I don't remember us ever talking about the ADA aside from what was required to pass our franchise Quality Assurance inspections and corporate Life Safety audits. During the five years that I worked for White Lodging Services there was more emphasis placed on knowing what accommodations we had for people with disabilities, including a small number of kits that had assistive technology for guests who were blind or deaf that we could temporarily add to the rooms...we never had those at any of the hotels I managed for WHI...but there was no focus on learning how those kits worked, why we had the accommodations we did, or whether or not they actually met the needs of our guests with disabilities. The ADA was not really discussed much in regards to hiring & firing practices when I worked with WLS. During my two years with Sodexo, while I was directing the operations at the hotel on DePauw University's campus, I saw more focus on diversity and understanding and accommodating disabilities from an employment aspect than ever before in my career, but I also witnessed a resistance to do any more than the bare necessities to physically meet the code required by the least, that was the case until their Director of Operations lost his legs to burn injuries sustained in a car accident during his commute home from work one night. That's what opened my eyes.

My example of this is that while we were renovating the hotel on DePauw's campus, I was directly asked by a man in a wheelchair, who happened to be a member of the university's Board of Directors...the group responsible for funding the renovation of the hotel, if we would make the doors from the parking lot into the hotel lobby accessible with push button automatic door openers. (The hotel was built before the ADA was law and had not been updated since, but a new, "fully accessible" Student Center had been built next door and was connected to the hotel through a hallway that once had been a beautiful wrap around porch). I replied that it made perfect sense to me, but I honestly didn't know if it was covered in the plan. As the Director of Operations I was more involved with with the daily progress of the renovation than I was the planning phase, but I would find out.

I checked with the General Manager and had to return to the man in the wheelchair and tell him that we met the code because of the accessible entrances on the attached Student Center, so none of the renovation budget was being spent on accessible entrances. Obviously, he was disappointed, but he understood that it was out of my hands. Looking back, I'm pretty sure he also felt like the needs of people with disabilities were not a priority for designer, the university, or the management firm they'd hired to run both the hotel and all campus foodservice.

Six weeks later I awoke from a medically induced coma to learn that my legs had been amputated from above each knee due to severe burns and other trauma sustained in a car accident. I was now the man in the wheelchair. Or at least I would be; at that moment I didn't have the strength to sit up in bed under my own power, let alone get into a wheelchair. Lying in bed a few days after the drugs had started to clear, my first few days really conscious, wearing nothing but a thin hospital sheet draped over what was left of the lower portion of my body, I found myself having a conversation with my General Manager and my Regional Vice President of Operations. They wanted to know what would need to happen for me to be able to return to work. (Not in a heartless "get back to work" kinda way, they were very supportive). The absurdity of the situation was unfathomable. All I could say, through a wired jaw and a speaking valve on a trache in my throat, was "I don't know, but those doors from the back parking lot to the lobby are going to have to be made accessible". They were ready a week later. I wouldn't return to the hotel for a year and a half, but those doors were made accessible immediately, without question.

The pitfall that every hospitality operation stumbles into is approaching the ADA, and the ADA Architectural Guidelines, as a code to meet instead of Civil Rights Legislation developed in a spirit of non-discrimination for people with disabilities. A shared culture that crosses all demographics. It's about doing the right thing for all people and must be approached in a practical manner that embraces a truly accessible society through intentional demonstrable design.

You might think that the situation I experienced was unique to an older hotel with the very specific set of circumstances that existed in that time and space, but the reality is that we face these issues every day. Our world was not developed to be accessible and even though their is now a code to guide those who are developing, administering, and managing our world today, you still have to approach the code with the spirit of doing the right thing if you're going to get it right.

Case in point, a local Starbucks that took over a vacant Boston Market that closed during the pandemic. The building was remodeled, the parking lot resurfaced and repainted, the drive thru re-oriented so that you order on the east side of the building, near the main entrance, instead of on the northwest corner of the building, near the back entrance to the lot. unfortunately, they did not move the accessible parking spaces, leaving them in front of the building, surrounded on three sides by the building itself, an outside eating area, and greenspace. Due to the re-orientation of the drive thru line, when the drive thru line has more than four decent sized vehicles in it the only two wheelchair accessible parking spaces in the lot get boxed in by the vehicles in line to order. If the drive thru is busy then people with disabilities, who have the right to independently come and go at their convenience during business hours, are unable to either park to enter the building or leave the premises without first getting the attention of other drivers long enough to make an opening.

All other patrons can park and come and go as they please, but the only parking spaces designed and designated for people with disabilities in the parking lot are the only spaces that are only accessible based on the variable business pattern of their drive thru. They have multiple "10 minute mobile order" parking spaces around the lot for people who need to jump out of their cars and run in to grab their drinks and go, though, so at least they've got those folks covered.

My point, they meet the code, but they are approaching it in a way that says, "you're an after thought and we don't really care if you can get in or out of our business". Honestly, I don't even know if they do meet the code. We tend to assume that the architects and designers at least get that part right, but I've never actually counted the spots in the lot to see if they meet the 2/25 requirement. The upsetting part is that you know it's not intentional, they just didn't have anyone on their pre-opening team who cared enough to say "are these accessible parking spots really going to be accessible if the order kiosk for the drive thru is located here, and the drive thru traffic is routed in front of them"? The maddening part is to have complained about it multiple times and have seen them re-paint and resurface parts of the lot since then and still not correct it.

I want to be clear though, we don't expect or want perfection, we just don't want to be an after thought. Starbucks has had multiple opportunities and resources to correct the problem, both pre-opening, and after identifying the issue. Some blue parking lot paint isn't really that expensive. So, the end result will be a discrimination complaint lodged with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

By comparison, my family recently went on a Kayaking trip on the White River with a group of amputees. This small Canoe & Kayak excursion operation doesn't have any where near the resources or the size of operation to be considered a "covered Entity" under the ADA, yet they go out of their way to be welcoming to groups of people with disabilities like our Amputee Support Group. As the only Bi-lateral Above Knee Amputee in our river excursion group this year, I was the only person using a wheelchair. The others had prosthetics that were less advanced, and more water durable than mine. My two robotic legs don't go near the water!

The folks at the Canoe & Kayak rental place didn't have an accessible bus, but they were open to helping in any way necessary to fit my wheelchair on the bus, allow me to figure out how to get on the bus and into a seat...this required a transition to monkey mode, when you lose both legs, you have to learn new ways to move, both with and without prosthetics...and at the river banks they allowed me to figure out the safest way to get in and out of the kayak. Was it easy? No. Did it require me to adapt to some otherwise non-accessible situations? Yes. But at the end of the day, because of the way the team at Canoe Country in Daleville, IN approached working with people with disabilities, they were a far more accessible operation than my local Starbucks!

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