By Karen Brain
One of the things I love about Vegas is there’s always so much to do! When we visit our Desert Oasis, we like to go to concerts and shows if they are accessible and affordable. In early December 2022, we had a trip planned specifically to attend a concert of one of our long-time favorites. We bought the tickets when they first went on sale; we were so excited! I wish we could have made a hotel reservation at that time too.
When we looked for hotels, our usual spots were unavailable during our trip. I guessed maybe it was still considered high season, and I mean, why wouldn’t everyone be in Vegas then – didn’t everyone want to go to this concert?!
I decided to look at some of the chain hotels with which I’ve had good accessibility experiences when I’ve traveled with family. We selected a well-known brand of a worldwide chain hotel, one with which I’ve had good experiences previously and therefore felt confident it could meet my needs.
I’ve learned the hard way in the past that if I want to confirm an accessible room (at least compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements), I cannot make my reservations through a third party nor online through the hotel’s website, I need to call and talk to a human working at that hotel site. Sometimes this will require an educational conversation to explain to the staff what is meant by an “accessible room,” the difference between a bathtub with Grab Bars in it and a roll-in shower, or an “ADA toilet” versus a “non-ADA toilet,” or a shower chair versus a shower bench versus a transfer bench… No, staff need not be experts in tools and terms commonly used within the disability community. I’m certainly not an expert. But I do think staff should be trained (at a minimum) on what the hotel offers, what excellent customer service looks and sounds like, and how to manage a situation best when they don’t know the answer to a customer’s question. This subject alone might make an entire article, so I’ll save additional details for one in the near future.
Despite the high price, with few options left and positive experiences recalled, this one seemed to be the best value we could find, so we booked it. I was told their accessible rooms provided a bathtub with Grab Bars, and there wasn’t a roll-in shower option. I didn’t pack either of my shower chair types because they take up a lot of space to bring with us, and the hotel staff told me they had shower chairs for guests to use (I have successfully used hotels’ shower chairs in the past). This trip taught me how diverse others’ understanding of the term “shower chair” could be. I naively assumed further clarification wouldn’t be necessary. But this is an educational journey for me as much as it is for those around me.
We arrived in Vegas at about 8:00 pm and drove directly to our hotel. I used my wheelchair during the check-in process, as I’m unable to stand for very long, especially since my most recent surgery was on my lumbar spine just four months earlier. The person working at the front desk was wonderful, a pleasure to work with, and demonstrated great customer service. When I asked for a shower chair, she said staff would bring it to the room. So we checked in and went up to the room.
It wasn’t long before the staff delivered the so-called “shower chair.” This device was unlike any “chair” I’d ever seen. For the record, in my experience, the standard shower chairs commonly used by people with disabilities are about $30-50 total per chair, depending on how fancy you’d like it to be, and usually available locally through drugstores, Target, Walmart, Amazon, and the like. To be fair, maybe the hotel is required to provide something different, perhaps something more durable, for liability or legal reasons. That’s understandable. But this “chair” was none of the above, and I hope it was not expensive because no medical professional or person with disabilities looked at that apparatus and thought, “Yeah, let’s give this a try; it seems safe, that should meet our requirements.” I’ll tell you again, I’m not an expert, and I’m even less knowledgeable about the hospitality industry and legal requirements. But the contraption delivered looked like a medieval art piece at best while screaming to me, “Danger!”
We watched as the staff installed this piece and seemed proud of the accomplishment. While the look on our faces must have said, “Are you kidding me?” We tried to politely inquire about this piece. I know how to use a chair, but I didn’t know how to use that thing!
Let me try to give you a visual… It was a standard rectangle bathtub with a curtain and Grab Bars installed on the back (long) wall and another shorter one on the wall opposite the showerhead. (Why weren’t there Grab Bars on all three walls? I don’t know.) Their chair was manually mounted on the side of the tub, with its seat able to bend between a zero-degree angle and a 90-degree angle with the side of the tub, and it had two little legs that folded out from underneath the seat when at the 90-degree angle. (It seemed to me the water would spill off of me or the seat, outside the tub, and onto the floor, despite the curtain, creating another liability for the hotel. But what do I know?) This chair used about half of the standing room inside their tub, and the staff installed it directly in the tub’s center. I guessed it was assumed I should straddle it like a horse? There was very little room for me to sit and have both feet on the same side of the tub floor. Did I mention I need my fiancé to assist me with showering? Where should those feet land?
We asked the staff to please move it towards the back of the tub; we explained that we both needed to fit in the shower together and move around to function. Once moved, we could see those little chair legs did not stand properly on their tub’s floor because of the curve in the tub’s floor design. What would happen when I sat on the seat? So we asked the staff to return it to its original center position.
Due to their tub, bars, and chair dimensions, and my size (I’m 4’9” tall), regardless of where the chair was mounted in the tub, I was forced to sit balancing onto one hip more than the other because the bar on the back wall stuck out just far enough to hit me in the arm preventing me from being able to move that arm. I’d like to know who suggested the hotel purchase this “chair,” who tested it, and what that testing entailed. I’m willing to bet it was not a subject matter expert or any other professional qualified to approve it for safe use by people with disabilities. I doubt any human tested it by sitting on it and showering in that tub.
We tried to discuss our concerns with the staff, but that didn’t help. The answer we were given repeatedly was, “If you want to remove it, you can.” This was their version of an accessible shower. This was their version of a shower chair. This was their version of customer service. Feeling hopeless and even more disabled by what felt like the hotel’s poor choices and lack of training, I guessed the horse straddle position would have to suffice. It seemed there was nowhere else we could go, not that night anyway. We felt tired and defeated, so we went to bed.
It was time to face the challenge the following day, surviving a shower with their chair in their bathtub. By the way, did I mention my mom was with us in Vegas? She was in the hotel room with us that morning in case I should need additional assistance during this shower challenge. (Although I really wanted to have the staff assist me with my shower – Best. Training. Ever. – but I’m not so bold.)
I got everything ready for my shower: my soap and shampoo were in the bathtub, the other toiletries were set out on the sink, towels were hanging nearby, and clean clothes were laid out for afterward. I just needed to undress and start the shower—nothing like facing a challenge naked.
We decided I would sit facing the showerhead, with the chair in its central location. My fiancé would stand in the back of the tub and try some new fancy washing moves from behind. (We named that the Sneaky Scrub. I find giving names to items and actions related to my body and assistance needed helps to explain my needs to caregivers and makes the adventure more fun. This could be another article topic!) First, I stepped into the tub and carefully sat on their chair with Mom’s help. We held still for about a minute before I felt safe enough for Mom to move away. I did not move at all; I was so scared I barely breathed. Mom was out of the bathroom in about a minute, and my Fiancé began undressing. Not one more minute could have passed… Without warning (no slipping, no movement at all), the chair collapsed and slammed down against the side of the tub with a bang, dropping me to the bottom of the tub floor! With the Grab Bar’s angle, the strange sitting angle, and the sudden drop, I could not have reached the bar to prevent the fall or lessen the blow to my body. The jolt was like a wake-up call.
Within seconds both my mom and my Fiancé were in the tub trying to get me up, make sure I wasn’t [too] injured, and get me out of there. It was a very awkward emergency moment. All three of us were panicked and screaming, my Fiancé and I both naked, Mom fully dressed and not a hair out of place (how does she do it?!)… Apparently, I was the only one there focused on the naked Fiancé in front of Mom thing.
Once they got me out of the tub and into my wheelchair, I assessed if I was hurt or felt injured. Well…easier said than done. I once drove myself to work with two broken hips because my self-assessment at that time was, “It doesn’t hurt worse than arthritis pain, so I guess I’m fine.” This is not a brag moment; I’m trying to show that my ability to assess might be skewed.
But it was like the jolting wake-up call started a process of emotions and thoughts in me different from simply being injured. My mind was spinning with questions and ideas. Rather than focusing on my body and what condition it may be in, or what needs it may have, at that moment post-fall… I was feeling anger, sadness, anxiousness, humiliation, resentment, and despair on behalf of my community. Although this critical incident happened to me, it was not about me, not in my mind. It was about the disability community and how this type of unfortunate incident occurs all too often to people with disabilities.
To be clear, when I refer to “a person who has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” also known as a person with a physical disability, I mean it may be temporary, long-term, permanent, mild, severe, and anywhere in between. It can happen to any of us at any time in our lives. We are not invincible; disability is inevitable. Furthermore, I am of the belief that to label the physical decline of our abilities as “aging” is to mislabel it; it’s not about getting older, it’s about becoming disabled, and it can happen at any age. So when I refer to the disability community, I’m including past, current, lifelong, and future members, and I’m referring to YOU.
If you can imagine a caged mama bear watching a person or animal causing harm to her cub outside of the cage, how would that mama bear feel? Regardless of the level of harm or whether that harm was intentional, mama bear doesn’t care.
My feelings and thinking were as if I was the mama bear and my cub was my community. This harmful incident is an opportunity for all of us; the hotel staff, my community, our caregivers and loved ones, and me.
Ok, back to reality. I understand this critical incident is highly unlikely to become a pivotal moment in the social justice movement for people with disabilities across America. But I have found that reframing it as an opportunity instead of victimization leads to better outcomes for all of us. Don’t get me wrong; it is no easy task to calm that mama bear, to impersonalize the incident and its results, and to address the situation appropriately and proactively.
So now what? What should I do about this situation? What should happen next? Well, first we should put clothes on.
This article was originally published in the 2023 PRIDE Month Issue of Las Vegas PRIDE Magazine, and can be read in its original format here.