I previously worked with Shane Feldman as a consultant at RID. I asked to interview “Facebook friend” D’Arcee Charington Neal after reading of his horrific situation with an airline. And Stacy Patnode Bassett married an Ohio friend, Michael Bassett, and I’ve gotten to know Stacy through her Facebook posts and blog.
Each has a similar but different story, as do I. They are by far not the only people I could have asked about their experiences as persons with disabilities*. Go read my blog in which you’ll learn about my own experiences and my first and growing knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And once you’ve read all of this and information from the links, I hope you’ll add your experiences and your plans to make hospitality and meetings really accessible. It’s beyond time!
*Please, say no to “handicapped” or “the disabled,” and certainly never refer to anyone as the “r-word": Spread the Word to End the Word. It’s the person, please, first.
D'Arcee Charington Neal is a writer/editor for the secretary of the interior and a postgraduate candidate for the University of Maryland. He is also a professional storyteller and a baritone with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. He has spastic hemiplegic cerebral palsy. He likes to travel internationally and discuss the intersectionalities of race, sexuality and disability. D’Arcee received his B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, his M.A. in Creative and Professional Writing from Roehampton University in London, and is currently studying for his M.A. in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Maryland.
You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @drchairington.
Shane Feldman, CAE, is director of strategic partnerships and development at the Communication Service for the Deaf and on Twitter @ThisisCSD, where he leads "an incredible team focusing on providing innovative technology and services that will to transform the Deaf community’s experience with their access to communication.” Prior to this, he was executive director of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), and before that, chief operating officer of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), the nation's premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the U.S.
Shane received his master’s degree in management and graduate certificate in nonprofit financial management from the University of Maryland University College and his bachelor’s degree in professional and technical communication from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
He is currently president of Discovering Deaf Worlds, an international development organization; was co-chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Video Programming Emergency Accessibility Advisory Committee Working Group 1, which submitted recommendations to the FCC for Internet protocol captioning regulations in response to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.
Stacy (Patnode) Bassett recently began a new job at the Sight Center of Northwest Ohio, where she is the Assistive Technology Specialist and will also be a case manager for children who are blind and visually impaired, and their families. Prior to this, she coordinated accommodations for college students with disabilities and chronic health conditions for five years at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). Before that, Stacy worked in the training department at Guide Dogs for the Blind as a training/class specialist. Stacy has a Bachelors in Interpersonal Communications from Ohio University and a Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
She and her twin sister, Sara, were born in the late ’70s. Their parents did not realize that Stacy and Sara were totally blind until they were six months old. They were born with an eye condition called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Growing up, their blindness was never the main focus: Their parents taught them to be self-confident, self-reliant and independent. Stacy wrote, “and for this, I am eternally grateful.”
Q1. My experience is that until one lives with a disability, either one’s own or that of a family member of close friend or co-worker, it is difficult to really know, even if one’s empathy is great, what the obstacles are, especially when attending meetings and conferences, or in your case, Stacy, just going to the movies.
Tell us about some of the obstacles you have faced.
D’Arcee: I think people have this vision about disability like it being some great monolithic block in your life that consumes all aspects of your life from the moment you wake up till you sleep. The truth is, there are times when I completely forget I have cerebral palsy. I’ll go to get out of bed, and remember when I go to stand and hit the floor, it’s like, “Oh. Right.” The obstacles that I have are generally brought on by lack of poor infrastructure planning or lack thereof, as a person in a wheelchair. [Emphasis is Joan’s].
Case in point, the snowstorm [in early March in D.C.], when the DOT decided to just … dump the snow on the curbs. That blocks access on or off accessible pathways, bus stops [and to] restaurants, etc. Most of it is just ignorance. On either behalf of the architect, or the business manager.
Stacy: My blindness is typically not something I focus on, and it has not prevented me from living a full and active life. I enjoy reading (especially fabulous romances!), discovering interesting local coffee shops, wine tasting and socializing with friends, and because I’ve been married for less than a year, I love being a newlywed!
I have had a guide dog by my side since the summer of 1995. Each of my dogs have had a profound impact on my life, and they have all enhanced my independent travel. Until recently, my dog’s presence in public places was rarely questioned, and if a business owner did question my right to have my guide dog accompany me, an explanation of the Americans with Disabilities Act would typically suffice.
With the extreme increase of people passing their pets off as service dogs, and claiming that they need their dogs in public for emotional support, my right to have my dog with me has been challenged.
[Stacy shared this next story on Facebook, and though I shouldn’t be, I was floored that it could happen. Take time to read her blog post about her experience on her honeymoon with Michael at a resort. Then use this information for your site inspections and with your vendors].
Hoteliers reading this: Seek out what your own facilities do and how they are prepared.
The most dramatic example of this occurred in August 2016 at the Petoskey Cinema in Petoskey, Mich. The manager demanded proof that our dogs were legitimate service animals, and insisted that we needed to provide verification that our dogs had gone through training. This is illegal.
I attempted to educate the manager about the two questions that a business owner can ask if there is any uncertainty about whether or not a dog is a service animal. No.1: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? No. 2: What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? That’s all that can legally be asked.
The manager was not interested in our explanations, and could care less that as she badgered us and discriminated against our right to be in the theater we were missing the first 10 minutes of Florence Foster Jenkins! Finally, to end the increasingly heated argument, my sister and I produced our guide dog documentation, despite the fact we were not required to do so, so we would not miss more of the movie.
As we began to walk away, the manager yelled across the lobby, “The dogs are not allowed on the seats! They may relieve themselves and we would have to clean it up!”
My twin and I felt extremely embarrassed and humiliated, and as we settled into our seats, we were shaking with reaction and adrenaline. It was an absolutely horrible feeling.
Shane: Among the greatest obstacles that I have faced is the perception that the sign language interpreter is being hired “because of the Deaf person.” If we perceive the sign language interpreter as a connection to become one world then our attitude changes. If an event valued the inclusion of non-English speakers, they would take the necessary steps to hire a spoken language interpreter to welcome them to their event, program or facility. The same perception and courtesy should be provided to Deaf people.
Q2. I’ve never done site selection of hotels for clients or asked the groups for whom I’m going to do training in a hotel if a hotel is really accessible without being told “they comply with the ADA.”
To that, how would you respond?
D’Arcee: I’d bring up specifics, so that way they can’t back out if something doesn’t work. The doorways are approximately 23 inches? The bathroom handles are reachable? The light switches can be reached? Yes? And if they say they don’t know the answer, find someone who does.
Stacy: As a person who is blind, I don’t think much about the accessibility of hotels. As long as there is a place to relieve my dog, I’m happy. Having said that, my husband and I like to go on weekend road trips.
During one of our excursions, we made a hotel reservation online, and one of the routine reservation questions was, “Are you blind or visually impaired, and would you like hotel information provided to you in an alternate format?”
I really appreciated that!
Shane: The phrase “compliance with the ADA” demonstrates the attitude that a group is interested only in ensuring that they provide the minimum service or accommodation necessary to absolve liability, which continues to make the disability group feel marginalized. Often this approach includes attempts to provide “one size fits all” solutions in hopes of addressing every possible disability with singular solutions.
Taking genuine steps to make a person feel welcome, whether they have a disability or really any customer, is to describe what you currently provide and ask if the services provided meets their needs. If it isn’t then find out what is necessary to meet their needs. Bonus points are given to groups that learn that they will have a customer with disability, and then finding out in advance what would meet the customer’s needs in advance.
A gold star is given to those who follow up and ask what can be done to make their experience better next time and being willing to do what is necessary to make this happen.
Oftentimes, these needs and the subsequent solutions are straightforward and may even have ancillary benefits to other groups that the business serves. For instance, curb cuts [and “push panels” or sensors to open doors] have far more benefits than just for wheelchair users, a feature which also benefits baby strollers, luggage, bicycles, etc., and closed captioning serves many more groups than the Deaf and hard of hearing community, a feature which also benefits noisy bars, English as a second language learners, technology companies that wish to use captions for translations and search services, etc.
Q3. What’s the best and what’s the worst experience you’ve had when attending a meeting and/or staying in a hotel to illustrate the inclusion/exclusion and frustration of being there?
[Example: I hate that because I need an ADA room for the shower with a bench that the closet has only a low bar, which means all my clothes brush the floor, picking up lint. How much smarter it would be to have a lever with a bar to raise and lower it—for me or for the companion/spouse with whom I may be traveling].
D’Arcee: I was staying in a beautiful hotel in Barcelona. I’d asked extensively before booking if the hotel was accessible to guests in [wheel or power] chairs and was reassured, so I booked a room.
On the final day there, the elevator broke down and the hotel wanted a skinny 19-year-old temp employee to carry me down six flights. I refused, and decided to crawl down myself rather than risking my health, in front of countless strangers only to be told that I still had to pay the full price of the room when I asked if there was anything that could be done for the inconvenience. A manager appeared and asked for a discount to be applied, but I discovered the next day the hotel took both the original price AND the discount.
The entire experience was a nightmare [If you’ve not seen this "rainbow bagel" Mashable video, watch it now].
Stacy: My needs at a hotel are few, as long as I know where to relieve my dog and what wines are being offered in the hotel bar, I’m golden. Having said that, I had a very negative experience at a hotel several years ago. The hotel manager insisted that my twin and I had to stay in one of the pet-friendly rooms, which also happened to be a smoking room. It took several conversations and support from Guide Dogs for the Blind before we were offered a non-smoking room as originally requested. I felt very unwelcome, and as though my business meant less to the hotel than a person without a visible disability [Joan’s emphasis added].
I have been to many conferences and meetings where the importance of inclusion and embracing diversity were emphasized. At the majority of these conferences and meetings, no thought was given to providing materials in alternate formats for people who are blind or visually impaired, and it made me feel like diversity and inclusion were words that did not apply to me [Joan’s emphasis added].
Shane: The worst experience I have had when attending a meeting was at the first few annual meetings of my professional membership organization where they refused to provide sign language interpreters for what they considered “non-program activities” that were listed in the event’s program book.
There are two undeniable benefits for professionals to attend their professional association’s meetings: First, to learn at the provided workshops, and secondly, to learn from each other outside of the workshops.
[Note from Joan: As a member of this same professional association, when I began to need a mobility scooter for long distances, the convention center at which the meeting was held would not allow the taxi from my hotel to come to the main door where the buses (which did not have a “kneeling feature”) were off-loaded and where my scooter awaited. I had enough mobility—and still do to be able to stand and walk short distances—but long walks were not doable. Convention center security forced the cab to the street and I had to climb up a small hill in dirt in order to get to the door. HOORAY for Twitter! My tweets got attention quickly.
But why did I even have to go through that, or now, with the airlines?]
Ask yourself, if you would reap the full benefits of your entire meeting experience if you were limited only to listening to the content provided in workshops, plenary sessions and “official conference activities.” For this reason, a sign language interpreter should be provided to the extent possible, where there are interactions between professionals during the meeting, including the “on your own” breakfasts, lunches, dinners and during breaks and late evening networking events. The lack of access puts an obstacle for a Deaf and hearing person to forge meaningful connections that could have led to future business or employment opportunities.
The Deaf person is at a disadvantage.
[Note from Joan: Years ago, the Foundation of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), when I served on its board, conducted studies to learn why people attended association and corporate meetings. We learned something most of us knew then and now: It’s to network or interact with peers, what I call “peer-to-peer learning,” which is impossible if one cannot, in some way, access others].
Q4. I learned, as a TSA PreCheck customer who is often denied access using an airport wheelchair and pusher to pre-check, the various U.S. government departments that are not in sync around accessibility for travelers. There’s DoJ’s website on ADA and meetings; there’s Air Carrier Access Act; and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Liberties, which I gather covers TSA. From your personal and professional experience, how could this be made more end-user friendly? What can my industry do to push more for this?
[I’m painfully aware that one hospitality industry association fought the Amendment to the ADA for pool lifts. I’m trying to create hospitality and other activists!]
D’Arcee: I discovered this firsthand in 2015, when after I’d flown from San Francisco to D.C. unable to use the bathroom on the plane (because I’d argue that airplane bathrooms are totally unusable for someone who can’t stand), that the logistics were totally out of sync when my wheelchair wasn’t waiting for me when I was trying to exit. I was sitting there for almost an hour after the plane emptied and when I asked calmly where the staff was to assist, I kept getting shrugs, annoyances and a general atmosphere of carelessness. But no one seemed to understand that after holding it for nine hours, I wasn’t in the business of no one having information. So I took matters into my own hands and simply crawled off the plane to go about my business.
The situation shocked the crew who contacted the airline, who contacted me after the news found out and it became a national scandal [Note from Joan: I’m painfully aware of the issues. Except for my constant tweeting to one particular airline to ensure assistance, each airport and each airline take no responsibility and blame the contractors! TSA PreCheck and LAS, I’m still waiting for your response. You do not serve passengers with mobility disabilities at all well!].
My point is, ADA accommodations are, as usual, seen as last-minute adjustments as opposed to proper logistics to be secured in place, and we as people with disabilities suffer for it.
[You can read more about flying with limited mobility here or here].
Stacy: I have been traveling with my dogs for more than 20 years, and the level of training and professionalism of TSA employees [and airports and airlines] varies greatly. I’ve had some truly wonderful experiences at airports all over the country, but I’ve also been subjected to awkwardness about my blindness, the assumptions that due to my blindness, I am required to use a wheelchair to navigate about the airport, fear of my dog, and some extremely uncomfortable pat-downs because of my guide dog’s presence.
I feel that there needs to be consistent training for all TSA employees, so that as a person with a disability, I always know what to expect when I visit airports around the country.
Shane: The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to this day still does not require closed captioning for in-flight entertainment (IFE). Captioning is only required for the emergency message at the beginning of every flight. More airlines are ensuring closed captioning is provided with some or all of their IFE; however, it is still not fully accessible. Airlines need to take every step possible to provide closed captioning for ALL of its in- flight entertainment on a voluntary basis until this rule is adopted into regulations or passed into law. Airports have a legal obligation to ensure that all of their airport televisions are captioned).
Airport public announcements are not accessible to the Deaf and hard of hearing community, we do not know about flight changes, emergency messages, boarding times or other critical announcements. There are some apps provided by some airlines that provide this helpful information, and this may be the way of the future in which every airline could provide this information through messages that are instantly delivered through their app or text.
Q5. What advice can you give to those who plan meetings and those who work in hotels, convention and conference centers to help them make their meetings and facilities—regardless of the belief that they comply with the ADA—more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities?
D’Arcee: If you know you have people with disabilities attending, do your best to find out what types of attendees you have. Placing chairs around tables when you’ve got attendees in wheelchairs is counterproductive and a complete waste of time. It requires research and execution. Scent-free areas, low-stimulation rooms, adequate signage; all of it is considered the hallmark of good accommodations and it should be considered and practiced whether or not a hotel feels they are within guidelines of certain standards. The whole point is ethics. People with disabilities are people first, and as guests, their needs should be catered to as much as the next person [Joan: What D’Arcee wrote fits nicely with the quote I use on my e-mails: "The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings." - Albert Schweitzer].
Stacy: If there is a meeting or conference agenda, the facilitator could include a statement regarding meeting and conference materials in alternate formats. I also feel that ongoing trainings for hotel staff regarding disability awareness and etiquette is necessary.
Shane: Engage and include the community in your discussion, design and delivery of solutions with different abilities and needs. Do not assume that you are capable of deciding what is best for them. You may be pleasantly surprised and such dialogues could create new and innovative ways for your company to provide solutions to other customers.
Final (for now) words:
I went to Cricket Park (The Rev. Ciritta “Cricket” Park), rector, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, Md.), the person, when she was deputy executive director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), from whom I first learned about the ADA and who wrote the only book and white paper, both sadly out of print, on the ADA and meetings, to see what she thought. My questions and her responses:
Joan: You were involved in disability rights and accommodations issues from before the ADA and were involved even more before in planning meetings and conventions. Since the ADA, what have you seen in hotels and travel that tells you we're making progress?
Cricket: Honestly, I don't see much progress. Venues have signage and the mandated physical accommodations, but I still catch planners not budgeting for or asking about accommodations.
Joan: You were the only person to write a book and a white paper (the latter for PMCA) on ADA and meetings, both now out of print. Why do you think, these many years later, nothing else as extensive has been written that is up-to-date using the amendment to the ADA and the different rules for the travel industry?
Cricket: I think that ADA has passed the "crisis" that it was when the law was first enacted. No crisis, no immediate need. Plus, the Supreme Court has weakened the law over the past two decades. Less requirements, less crisis. Less crisis, less need. When I was consulting, I was told more than once from hotel national offices that my services weren't necessary to train front desk staff. Travel industry folks seem insular.
As in, "Please don't come in from the outside and tell me what to do." Yet, I see little progress in hiring people with disabilities to be in sales or services. That is a loss for the travel industry. I would surmise that no one has written more because there is no demand for the information.
Joan: How we can all be better advocates for inclusion for people with different abilities in general and especially for the hospitality, meetings and travel industries?
Cricket: I always considered my role as a planner to be more than an arranger of logistics. I was a creator, with the members of the venue staff, of a "home away from home." I believed in making a space for community. I believe the best thing that the industry can do is remember that people with disabilities are a valuable part of that community and make sure they feel at home.
Editor’s note: We apologize for inadvertently inserting a word into the earlier version of this portion of the interview that changed the meaning and intent of the interviewee’s words.