Tobin: Celebrate the Weekend by Boosting Access

Posted July 6, 2012 at 12:43pm

This post-Independence Day weekend, like every Fourth of July, I’m looking forward to spending time with my family. I’m looking forward to parades and VFW cookouts and seeing American flags lining the Main Street of every small town across the country. I’m looking forward to watermelon and fireworks and finally taking a vacation.

Even with the tough economy, we’ve seen hotel rates and occupancy rise about 3 percent this year over last year and, with a recent drop in gas prices, we’re expecting that 5 percent more Americans will travel this year than last year.

I generally love to travel. I love getting out to new places, meeting new people, and seeing new parts of the country. But, as a wheelchair user, there is always a small bit of sadness in my heart when I go with my family to a hotel that hasn’t yet adapted their facilities to fully address the needs of Americans with disabilities.

In a year with rebounding hotel profits, Americans with disabilities are still fighting hotel lobbying groups that are bound and determined to fight the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 1990, the ADA brought some relief to Americans with disabilities looking for equal access to jobs and facilities. We fought hard for that legislation and have been fighting hard ever since to make sure that the legislation evolves with new technology and new needs of Americans with disabilities. What we’ve encountered along the way is a well-funded effort by the hotel industry to not only refuse compliance with the ADA, but to actually roll back the rights and protections that we fought so hard to secure.

For the 54 million people with disabilities living across this country, the Fourth of July holiday arrives each year with the same mix of joy and sadness that I experience. As Americans with disabilities make plans to travel with family and friends, we have to pay special attention to hotel facilities — the width of entryways, the ease of navigation through lobbies and the presence of lifts to get in and out of the hotel pool. Though the ADA guaranteed equal access to all such facilities, big hotel industry lobbyists have decided that my access to hotel pools is too big a burden to bear.

Because of these lobbying groups, I often have to watch from the sideline as my family and friends frolic in hotel pools. Because of these lobbying groups, I’m forced to see myself as a second-class citizen. Because of these lobbying groups, I’m treated as a burden by hotel staff, rather than a paying guest. I laugh along with my family and friends on the outside, but the inside of me burns with embarrassment and sadness.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Department of Justice has tried over and over again to work with the hotel industry to bring it in line with ADA requirements, but these groups — led by the American Hotel & Lodging Association — continually stonewall this progress and insist that alignment with the ADA is overly burdensome to the very same hotels that are seeing record profits.

And for the more than 20 million veterans in this country — many of whom, like me, are living with disabilities — it’s especially grievous that a lobbying group would act against the best interests of those who have sacrificed so deeply for our country.

During this week — the celebration of the sacrifices that so many people have made for our great American democratic experiment — I look forward to the parades and watermelon and VFW cookouts. And I always will.

But I also look forward to the day that all Americans — regardless of physical ability, military service or any other factor — are able to fully celebrate the day, without that twinge of sadness and without feeling like a second-class citizen. That’s what I served my country for and that’s what I continue to work toward every day of my life.

Paul Tobin is president and CEO of the United Spinal Association.