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Subject to Availability

Imagine paying thousands of dollars and travelling many hours only to arrive at your pre-booked vacation destination and discover that a private space to bathe and defecate was not available.

“We’re terribly sorry, sir/madam, but toilets are first come, first serve. It’s hotel policy. We should have one available for you in a few days.” Imagine the anger, the sheer panic, of being tens of thousands of kilometres from home and suddenly denied basic quality of life. This is a common reality of differently abled vacationers, who are left at the mercy of in-the-moment availability of accessible rooms within a hotel or resort.

I’ve been on three out-of-country vacations since my injury. My latest trip was to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with my family. It was touch and go at the beginning. We had to advocate very hard to get our Toronto hotel to provide a wheelchair-accessible shuttle to the airport- an otherwise free service for their guests. Ultimately, we did get that transport. And the airport experience and flight were great.

Even the transfer from the airport in Cancun to the resort was without issue. It wasn’t until we checked in that things started to go sideways.

Let me preface this next part by saying my wife is a superstar, and when I say “we” I really mean “she.” Being an ex-travel agent, she understands the travel industry and knows that any request is not guaranteed. That’s why she followed up with the resort several times before our arrival to impress how important it was that we are given an accessible room, to which they responded with “nothing is guaranteed, but we’ll do our best.”

We asked when we were checking in if the room is one of their eight accessible rooms. “No, sir. None of those rooms are available until Thursday.” It’s Monday. We ask them if they are sure, we requested an accessible room several times and it is extremely important that we have one. “Sorry, all requests are subject to availability.” We ask to speak to a manager and get the same stone-wall response, with an added: “If you don’t like the room, you can go to another hotel.” As the front desk manager walked away, I sat there dumbfounded. Did he really just say that?

We decide to go check out the room we’ve been given and quickly realize that something needs to be done for us to make do for three days. Not only is there a step up into the shower stall, but there is also a glass door to the tiny room where the toilet is located. My chair is 27 inches wide, and it couldn’t fit through the door. After inspecting the doorway, I realized my chair would (barely) fit through if the glass door was removed. Then we could at least stay in this room until the accessible one became available.

We headed back down to the front desk and spoke to yet another front desk agent. We explain the situation. Another manager is called over, who says, “Sorry, we don’t do that.” At this point, tempers start to flare, emotions creep in, and the conversation gets heated. “So, what do you expect me to do? How do propose we resolve this?” I think I could actually hear the manager blinking at me while he stood there not saying anything.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the general manager got involved. After explaining the situation to him, he put in a five-second radio call, the maintenance crew came to our room, and they took the toilet door off. There were no grab bars or handles, but I was at least able to get on and off the toilet with the help of my wife. We would survive until Thursday.

Travelling with accessibility needs has enough of its own challenges – “simple” things like lugging a heavy suitcase; waiting in crowded, tightly careened lineups; checking in at desks that are “standing” height. The list is endless. Little is easy. But for the most part, it’s doable and worth it.

I understand that most requests are deemed “subject to availability,” and for most requests that are perfectly acceptable. But the possibility of an accessible room being unavailable at check-in, that an accessible room is treated as a request rather than a need, is too much. It’s utterly ridiculous. These rooms are vital to the basic qualities of life that those of us in need of them require to enjoy a holiday, travel for work, or be comfortable when en route to somewhere else. And yet out of the three out-of-country vacations I’ve taken since my injury, the accessible room that I requested was unavailable twice. How does this happen? I can book a flight and select a seat, months in advance, and that seat is no longer available to anyone else. Why can’t hotels and resorts do the same thing? The travel industry needs to change this archaic practice of lumping these critical room requests into the same low-priority category as a “sea view” or a pullout cot.

“The travel industry needs to change this archaic practice of lumping these critical room requests into the same low-priority category as a “sea view” or a pullout cot. ”

Perhaps if the travel industry knew the actual size of the market segment that would require accessible rooms should they choose to travel they would adjust their practices and allow us to reserve an accessible room. Of the 38.23 million people in Canada (2021), over 6 million identify with having a disability. That’s over 15.5%! In the US, 19.1% of their population identify as having a disability. That’s 63.4 million people, and these numbers are only going to get larger. At the resort we stayed at, there were 955 available rooms …8 of which were billed as wheelchair accessible. As a percentage, that’s less than 1%.

I challenge the travel industry to do better, to be proactive versus reactive. To head off this all-too-common, easily fixable issue. It will open a whole new market segment by making differently enabled travelers feel safe to travel. We all deserve to see different parts of the world. We all deserve to relax and make memories that last a lifetime. And we deserve to have our basic needs met while doing it.

Since returning from our trip both my wife and I have  reached out to our Playa del Carmen resort chain to get some sort of response (from anyone in management), but we’ve been met with radio silence.

Another common tactic when it comes to accessibility issues: Ignore the problem until it goes away. If enough voices continue to shout the same thing, maybe we will finally be heard.

By: Brian Campbell | Fall 2022

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