REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Preparing for special requests from customers with disabilities with the goal of providing equal access will help hoteliers better understand circumstances and ultimately avoid litigation.
There are myriad requests—from refrigeration for medication to accommodating a miniature horse—and hoteliers should be educated in order to make case-by-case assessments for risk mitigation, said representatives on an ADA National Network webinar titled “Serving Customers with Disabilities: Equal Access for Everyone!”
On the customer service side, hoteliers are asked to make “reasonable modifications” to their standard policies when accommodating a person with a disability, said Marian Vessels, director for the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center.
Vessels outlined the following requests and how to handle each situation:
• Hoteliers may not impose a surcharge for service animals or charge extra for accessible rooms. “You have to provide the same services that you do to all of your guests,” Vessels said.
• If hoteliers have the ability to change out a bed with a frame to a bed with an open frame, it is recommended, she said. This better accommodates lifts.
• Don’t use strongly scented products when cleaning a disabled person’s room, just before their stay or during their stay, if at all possible.
• Some people need refrigeration for medication. Hoteliers can loan refrigerators to people with disabilities or house the medication in the hotel’s refrigeration, and make it easily accessible.
• Be careful that furniture doesn’t block access to someone navigating a guestroom independently.
• Vessels recommended giving guests with visual disabilities a tour of the hotel so they can independently navigate on their own.
A common, often misunderstood request is the need to bring a motorized vehicle on premise. Vessels said there are many vehicles outside traditional wheelchairs that fall under regulation, such as scooters, Segways or golf carts “to help people get from Point A to Point B.”
“A lot of people who can stand but can’t walk for long distances use Segways,” she said. “They may use them to get from a convention center to the hotel or just as they would use a wheelchair.”
Hoteliers should consider in advance a good location for storing such devices; somewhere where the devices can be secured and protected but conveniently accessed when needed.
Hoteliers are limited by law to the restrictions and questions they can ask of a disabled guest.
Vessels said there is one question a hotelier can ask a user of a wheelchair or other power-driven mobility device: “Do you need that device because of a disability?”
“But you cannot ask them for proof of their disability,” she said. “You might not consider them to be a person of disability but if they answer ‘yes,’ you’ve been given verbal representation.
“If they tell you they need it because of a disability, you aren’t able to ask questions about how limiting the disability is.”
Service animals are not pets, so policies in place at a hotel regarding pets do not apply to service animals, said Jacquie Brennan, attorney with the Southwest ADA Center.
There are two types of service animals—dogs and miniature horses. There are many different kinds of service dogs: guide dogs (travel tool for visually impaired); signal dogs (trained for the hearing impaired); psychiatric dogs (turning on lights, reminding handlers to take medication); Ssig dogs (trained to help people with autism) and seizure-response dogs.
Although less common, miniature horses are considered service animals. The only considerations hotels can make regarding accommodating a miniature horse is the animal’s size and weight. Hoteliers cannot turn away a miniature horse depending on whether it is housebroken or not, Brennan said, but handlers can be charged a fee for any damages.
Brennan said there is misconception over whether comfort animals are considered service animals. Comfort animals are not covered by federal law and therefore hoteliers have the right to refuse comfort animals if they don’t normally allow pets.
“There is no requirement for a service animal to wear a badge and the handler does not need to show proof of his or her disability,” Brennan said. And there are only two questions a hotelier can ask a person regarding their service animal: “Is the animal required for the disability?” and “What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?”
Hoteliers can’t charge a fee for a service animal like they would a traditional pet, Brennan said.