Members of four disability-rights groups are boycotting a number of hotels over disagreements about pool-lift policies.
Begun in July, the boycott targets hospitality firms because advocates for the disabled are angry with two lobbying organizations — the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. They accuse the trade groups of being behind changes in how the Americans with Disabilities Act is interpreted.
Organizing the boycott are the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Council on Independent Living, ADAPT and the National Disability Rights Network.
“This industry’s lobbying groups are making the decision to spend their members’ dues on big-time Washington lobbyists to amend the ADA and limit accessibility for people who use wheelchairs and other means of getting around, and so need a lift,” said Lara Schwartz, vice president of external affairs for the American Association of People with Disabilities, based in Washington, D.C. “The community’s saying, ‘Fine. I’m just not going to spend money on the people who are going to limit our rights.’”
But the AH&LA says it has cooperated with the ADA. “We’ve been spending the last two years educating our members on how to come into compliance, and we have a concern about one specific issue that really was only defined by the Department of Justice in January of this year,” said Kevin Maher, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based AH&LA. “They’re kind of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Though the ADA became law in 1990, specific instructions for pool and spa compliance were not released until 2010. These included language stating that commercial pools and spas must have disability access lifts, with larger vessels needing a second means of access as well. An interpretation of the law mandated that all lifts be permanently attached to the deck, rather than the portable models that can move freely between two pools and be put away for storage.
These stipulations were released less than two months before the March 15, 2012, compliance deadline. Many aquatic businesses objected to the late date, saying some facilities had already purchased portable lifts.
But ultimately the Department of Justice, which oversees the ADA, extended the compliance deadline to Jan. 31, 2013. The DOJ also allowed portable lifts for facilities that had purchased them before March 15, as long as they are positioned for use during hours of operation.
Lifts bought after March 15, 2012, are to be fixed, as long as the facility’s ability to purchase them is “readily achievable.” No exact definition of that term was provided.
The DOJ’s change of heart caused many facility operators to breathe a sigh of relief, but had the opposite effect on a number of people in the disabled community. The advocacy groups accused the hotel associations of trying to weaken the law by lobbying to eliminate the fixed-lift requirement and to permit the sharing of a single lift no matter how many pools and spas are in a given property.
“This would mean that if a person with a disability wants to leave one pool and join his family at another pool across a giant resort, he would have to get staff to haul the thing over there and reinstall it,” Schwartz said.
The AH&LA believes portable lifts should be allowed across the board. “We’re not trying to take away anything from the ADA,” Maher said. “We want to provide access, but we need some flexibility on how to meet that requirement.” Maher said he had hoped to work with the disability-rights community to come to an agreement on allowing portable lifts for all facilities, and jointly take a proposal to the Department of Justice.
Because of their concerns, AAPD and other groups organized a protest this summer at AH&LA headquarters. More importantly, the coalition declared a boycott against two groups of hotels and motels — those that do not have fixed lifts on their pools and spas and those “represented among the executive leadership” of the two hotel trade groups.
Members of the disability-rights groups and those sympathetic to their cause are being asked to not host events or book stays at these facilities. The exact reach of these groups isn’t known because some don’t have individual members, but rather are composed of facilities and programs catering to the disabled. The American Association of People with Disabilities represents more than 70,000, while the National Council on Independent Living (which includes ADAPT) has a potential to include more than 5,000, according to an official within the organization.
Boycott organizers hope to accomplish two things, Schwartz said — stop continued lobbying about pool lifts by the hotel groups, and pressure properties to install fixed lifts.
The boycott has the potential to affect more than 700 hotels and motels. In its list of targets, boycott organizers named the Carlson Rezidor company, which itself accounts for 640 properties across the United States, with brands including the Park Plaza, Radisson, Radisson Blu, Park Inn by Radisson, Country Inn & Suites and Hotel Missoni. Another 97 individual facilities were listed, including those owned by the Fitzpatrick Hotel Group and Kimpton Hotels.
The hotel group and others prefer the allowance of portable lifts in all cases for several reasons. First, they say the cost of installing fixed lifts, which requires bolting them to the deck, would be prohibitive for many facilities. Additionally, they say fixed lifts can become an attractive nuisance for children who could injure themselves, creating a liability concern. “We hired a safety consultant who spent a career looking at safety issues and said this is an increased safety risk,” Maher said.
But officials from the disability-rights groups don’t believe the cost argument because cash-strapped facilities can obtain a waiver if needed, and tax credits are available. They also reject the notion that the lifts are unsafe. “A pool by its definition is dangerous for children,” said Kelly Buckland, director of the National Council on Independent Living in Washington, D.C. “[Children] should be supervised if they’re there. There are all kinds of things for them to play on and jump off, including diving boards and ladders. The pool lift isn’t any different.”
Boycott organizers question how quickly hotel staff could provide lifts when needed. They also say their members don’t feel safe on portable lifts because they seem less stable than their fixed counterparts. “They continue to ... dismiss the community’s concerns that portable lifts are more dangerous to their users and unlikely to be installed in a timely fashion,” Schwartz said.
These groups also worry about how the hotel associations’ lobbying actions could affect the “readily achievable” clause used throughout the ADA, beyond the pool and spa section. To the disabled community, this phrase was a concession to accommodate business owners who can’t afford to meet the preferred standard (in this case, fixed lifts). The phrase was inserted after much negotiation while the 2010 standard was being written, Buckland said.
Allowing portable lifts for any facility would, in effect, remove the “readily achievable” concept from the pool section and allow anyone to meet a lower standard, they believe. Buckland sees that as a potentially slippery slope. “If the [associations] are successful at being exempted from the requirements of the ADA, then why not [exempt] buses, why not restaurants?” he said. “We think this is a direct threat on the ‘readily achievable’ requirement of the act. If that part of the act is undercut, it puts in jeopardy all the access requirements under the ADA.”