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Communicating with guests with disabilities
March 16 2012

A well-trained staff able to effectively communicate with visually- and hearing-impaired customers is crucial to providing all hotel guests with the same quality of experience.

  • A well-trained staff able to implement various devices, handle front-desk interactions with guests and ensure the hotel is compliant with ADA standards is key.
  • “Don’t assume that because someone who is blind or (has) low vision that they require a wheelchair accessible room. Ask about their room preference,” Great Lakes ADA Center’s Peter Berg said.
  • All communication features for hearing-impaired guests are portable, with the exception of the fire alarm.
By Stephanie Wharton
HNN contributor

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Effectively communicating with visually- and hearing-impaired guests is crucial to providing a quality experience for all hotel guests.

A well-trained staff able to implement various devices, handle front-desk interactions with guests and ensure the hotel is being compliant with American with Disabilities Act standards is key, speakers said during a webinar titled “Communicating with Customers with Disabilities—Understanding Your Obligations!”

Providing assistance
If the hotel offers shuttle services to its guests, communication with the customers starts at the airport, said Peter Berg, project coordinator for technical assistance and employer outreach at the Great Lakes ADA Center.

“You want to make sure drivers are verbalizing directions and offering guided assistance,” Berg said. If a blind or low-vision guest is on board and the bus makes multiple stops, they will need to know the stops so they can exit at their destination.

Upon arrival at the hotel, the guest might need directions to the hotel entrance. Berg suggests using a clock to provide directions to someone. For example, if the guest is facing the hotel entrance, the person providing assistance should tell the guest once they get through the front door, the front desk will be at  his or her “3 o’clock.”

When checking in, modifications to acceptable forms of identification should be made, Berg said. Allowing someone who is blind or low vision to present a state-issued ID rather than a driver’s license should be an acceptable practice.

As for room selection, “don’t assume that because someone is blind or (has) low vision that they require a wheelchair accessible room. Ask about their room preference,” Berg said.

Room keys easily can be confused with other plastic cards, but it is easy to make the room key accessible, Berg said. “Simply clipping off one corner to indicate which end the card should be held (is helpful).”

A visually-impaired guest might need assistance getting to his or her room, Berg said. It is important to tell the hotel staff not to put their hands on guests. “You wouldn’t do this with other guests,” he said.

Instead, if the guest indicates they would like guided assistance, the staff member should first ask which side the guest prefers to hold onto, and then verbalize to the guest they will be guiding the elbow for support.

Room orientation
Providing orientation in the guestroom also is important.

In today’s technology-driven world, guests often need to know where outlets and data ports are located.

Letting a guest know the direction of the draperies and whether they are open, closed or opaque is important. “These present serious privacy concerns to someone who is blind or has low vision,” Berg said.

In addition, a guest might need assistance separating the complimentary toiletries at the hotel. Some guests might bring their own toiletries they want to lay out in a certain order. “If they request you do not move those items, make sure your housecleaning staff is aware of that and is notified that those items should not be moved around,” Berg said.

Front-desk interactions
If the guest uses a credit card to pay for any charges at the end of his or her stay, the card should be placed directly in the guest’s hand rather than on the table, Berg said. If the guest asks for change, members of the hotel staff should count the change back to the guest, indicating the order in which the individual is receiving each bill or coin.

Additionally, the hotel staff needs to be trained to fully read and explain to the guest what they are signing upon checkout. Simply telling a guest to sign on the line is not a good indication of where he should sign his name. A piece of cardboard strip readily available for the front-desk staff to place under the line where the guest is supposed to sign is a good practice, Berg said.

During all front-desk interactions, hotel staff should identify themselves and their position as most visually-impaired guests would not be able to read small print on a nametag.

Berg suggests hotels implement training programs for staffs, incorporating someone blind or with low vision for development. He also said hotels might want to consider providing certain materials in an alternative reading format, such as room menus in Braille.

Tips for effective communication
Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, shared important points to keep in mind regarding communication with hearing-impaired guests:

• Safety: If there is a fire alarm, the hotel staff must provide notification to deaf and hard of hearing just as everyone else has that knowledge. “The old system in 1991 would allow for mobile alarms to be used, but that is not the case anymore.” Portable alarms only work if there is an actual fire in the room, Rosenblum said. Alarms must now comply with the NFPA 71 National Fire Alarm Code.
• Alerts for doors and phones: A visual device, such as lights for doorbells and knocks at the door as well as for phone calls, would make the room more accessible to a deaf or hard of hearing guest.
• Wake up devices: “Deaf individuals don’t have the option of using an alarm clock to wake up,” Rosenblum said. A bed shaker is a good alternative.
 Televisions: Televisions have captioning built-in from previous regulations, but it is still reasonable for hoteliers to check with movie companies they have contracts with to ensure captioning for those services.
• Hearing dogs: “Access is required for hearing dogs … even when there is a ‘no pet’ policy,” Rosenblum said. The hotel staff is only allowed to ask two questions to a guest with a service animal—if the dog is required because of a disability and what tasks the dog performs. Although the hotel can assess any penalties for cleanup required because of the dog staying in the room, it cannot charge for the dog’s stay.
• Guest-staff interactions:
o If the guest arrives and the front desk does not understand his speech or doesn’t understand sign language, “pen and paper should be sufficient,” Rosenblum said. However, if there is a conference with the majority of attendees being deaf or hard of hearing, hiring an interpreter would make the check-in and check-out processes run more smoothly.
o “(Hotel staff members) should know how to handle phone calls,” Rosenblum said. “Sometimes people think a call sounds strange … people need to be aware not to hang up on those calls.” Relay calls often sound like telemarketing phone calls, but hotel staff members should be patient as the operator communicates with the customer and hotel staff.
• Emergencies: If a hearing-impaired guest is stuck in an elevator and hits the emergency call button, they probably will not be able to reply to the person on the other line. Rosenblum said it is important not to assume there is no one in the elevator if there is silence on the other line.

All communication features for hearing-impaired guests are portable, with the exception of the fire alarm, Rosenblum said. The teletypewriter required for phones and bed shakers can be moved from room to room to accommodate guests as needed.

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