In what has been described by disability-rights advocates as nothing short of a fight over equal access rights, a coalition of organizations unveiled plans Wednesday to boycott some of the nation’s leading hotels over their efforts to delay the enforcement of federal guidelines requiring the installation of permanent wheelchair lifts that allow disabled guests entry to swimming pools.
At issue has been debate over specific guidelines set forth in 2010 as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding access to pools for people with disabilities. This past January, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revised those standards, requiring a number of hotels by March 15 to install pool lifts that were permanently “fixed” next to a pool at all times. The deadline, however, was subsequently extended to May 21 — due in large part to an extensive lobbying campaign by industry trade organizations.
Such efforts eventually led to GOP lawmakers adding an amendment to the House version of the 2013 Consumer, Justice Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act that pushed back the compliance deadline to January 31, 2013, a move disability-rights groups said ran counter to the rights supposedly protected under the ADA, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990. The proposed legislation, which passed the House by a vote of 247-163 in May, is currently being considered in the Senate.
“The hotel industry got a lot of what it wanted, but they still didn’t call off their attack dogs in Congress,” said Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). “This lobbying is going all out, their position is no one - not the United States Congress that passed the ADA or the Department of Justice that enforces it – should require them to install the equipment that is truly and completely accessible to people with disabilities.”
The coalition’s campaign, led by AAPD as well as other national disability rights groups such as the National Council on Independent Living, ADAPT and the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), is urging supporters to avoid booking meetings, conventions or leisure stays at hotels that are non-compliant with DOJ guidelines.
“We know that the disability community itself is a very active user of hotels for a variety of meetings, conferences and seminars,” said NDRN Executive Director Curt Decker. “We are planning to use that economic clout to send a strong message to the whole industry that if you are accessible you will get our business, and if you are not, you will not get our business.”
Specific targets of the boycott include hotels represented among the executive leadership of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), the industry’s largest lobbying association, which include large hoteliers such as Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, which own four hotels in Chicago including the Allegro, Monaco, Burnham and Palomar. Other hotels named included the Fitzpatrick Hotel Group, which own establishments in New York and Ireland, and the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, owners of the Radisson Hotels and Country Inn & Suites brands.
From its standpoint, the AHLA has assessed blame for the conflict on the DOJ, criticizing the agency for not giving the hotel industry only a couple of months for the time it changed the rules to come within compliance. Previous guidelines allowed for the use of portable lifts that could be brought poolside upon request.
“It seems as though a lot of confusion was brought about by the Justice Department,” said Kevin Moher, AHLA senior vice president of government affairs. “It seems like the disability community really should be taking up their views with the Department of Justice, not with the lobbying industry.”
The trade association has argued installing fixed lifts would force undue costs upon smaller hotels that would not only have to pay for a lift’s installation, but also maintenance, education of employees and higher insurance premiums. AHLA also contends that a fixed pool lift increases risk of injury due to misuse by children in unattended pools.
ADAPT spokesman Bruce Darling said such arguments were reminiscent of the fights groups like his waged in the 1980s over the installation of wheelchair lifts on public buses.
“Apparently everything old is new again,” Darling said. “All of the arguments we heard about why we shouldn’t be able to put lifts on public buses are now circling back around and we’re hearing the same thing about lifts in swimming pools,” he added.
Gary Arnold, spokesman for Access Living, which provides assistance to disabled individuals within the Chicago area, expressed his concern that the fight over pool lifts could serve to challenge other ADA protections.
“There is a concern that this will set a precedent for other standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Arnold said. “The industry has had so much time to make these implementations, and so in a way, it’s kind of an insult for them to ask for an extension like this.”
Moher said the hotel industry remained willing to work with disability rights groups to come up with a viable solution that could satisfy both sides, but felt it was unlikely because of the unwillingness of groups like AAPD to reach any sort of compromise, a decision he called “disappointing”.
In addition to targeting those hotels connected to AHLA leadership, another part of the coalition’s strategy, Perriello said, involved calling on supporters to identify and then boycott any hotel they come across that is required, but does fails to, have a fixed lift installed at their pools. He said plans are in the works to create a website that will post a list of non-compliant hotels.
Image: AP Photo/Russ Bynum