Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vail, Colorado

Yes, The Whole City

Brian and I spent a long weekend in Vail for the Vail Veterans ski program in March of 2007. We were approaching - though we didn't know it then - Brian's final surgery that summer, and we had another 7 months in the hospital. This means we were still fighting the infection in his left leg, and some days he flat-out couldn't get out of the wheelchair.
We knew Brian was going to be in a mono-ski for his mountain activities, so accessibility wasn't an issue there. He had instructors who would stay with him the whole time and help him navigate the lifts, the resort, all of that.
What we didn't know - what we never know - was how the rest of the facilities would be.

To say that I was pleasantly surprised is a monumental understatement.

I want to start this rave (no rants at all, here!) with the bus system.
I have a running complaint about mass transit. I can't tell you the number of subway stations that say they are accessible, but don't tell you they're under construction or don't bother putting up signs to let you know where the elevator is. Better yet, I know of some stations that are, technically, accessible, but only if you're on the southbound track; northbound you have to pass the station, switch trains, and come back in order to use the southbound-only elevator. Accessible, in a lot of instances, doesn't mean convenient. In fact, often it's the precise opposite.
The Vail buses, however, were amazing. The drivers were polite, the other riders were considerate, and there was no freakish, embarrassing restraining device used on my husband when he wanted to ride... the bus was on hydraulics, so it lowered itself closer to street level and then extended a rather discrete ramp. We took the bus upwards of six times a day, and never had a single incident.

Hearkening back, I know there are some places - ski lodges and condominiums and the like - that were not accessible. However, they weren't advertised as such, so I don't care. The hotel we were in was accessible enough that when I hurt my knee (no skier, am I) that I was confortable scooting around the hotel at night in Brian's chair to fetch my own ice from the machine down the hall. If I can do it, anybody can.
The hotel room was not on the first floor, admittedly, but they never are. There was plenty of room to get all the way around the bed, however, and the room was richly decorated. It didn't look like a hospital room, which is sometimes the case for handicap accomodations.

Now, Brian didn't go with me into Vail Village. He was skiing the fresh powder while I limped around the bottom of the mountain with a bum knee. I recall many of the shops being navigable, but definitely not all, and probably not 'most'. Its been awhile, but I seem to recall not noticing any issues in the paths and squares outside the shops; there didn't seem to be any outstanding staircases or really anything more debilitating than some rough cobblestones. This is often the case in 'downtown' or 'old town' areas, though; Vail was no better or worse than any other.

One incident that sticks out in my head was our nighttime trip to the top of the mountain to go snow tubing. Getting out to the tubing area was tricky... until a friendly Vail employee popped Brian onto the back of his snowmobile and hauled right past all of us on the wagon. I seem to recall my husband making a lewd gesture as they passed us...
The snow tubing itself was also memorable. Rather than haul your own tube up the mountain, there was a conveyor system that was simultaneously ingenius and enabling. Either myself or a friend would haul Brian - legless for the evening - as he sat on his tube over to the conveyor system, whereupon the tube was attached and hauled up to the push-off point. One of the nice employees at the top helped Brian get into position, and even helped him push off a bit to get some speed. Brian had just as good a time as anyone else - which is something I can't often say when he doesn't have his prosthetics on.

I recall no issues with the lodge we used as our home base - I clearly recall the location of the elevator, the layout of the restaraunt, and my appreciation of Brian's ability to navigate around obstacles without me. He spent most of the weekend away from me, honestly, as he is an incredible skiier and I am just a girl from Kansas. I shopped and laid in the hottub while he rocketed down the mountain at ridiculous speeds in his bucket of death. That fact alone - that he was comfortable without me, and I wasn't worried about him - speaks more about the experience than anything else I can relate.

One possible detractor that I must mention is that we were part of the Vail Veterans program, and its possible we were getting a special treatment. Its possible there are some places that are not generally accessible or services that are not generally offered that we were able to partake in. Somehow, I doubt it. But it is something to look into, and I would love to go back to Vail, especially now that Brian can use his legs every day.

And I would not hesitate to recommend Vail to every one I know. It was an incredible town, an amazing experience, and Brian & I are both better for it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mount Washington

The story of our trip to Omni Mount Washington Resort is simultaneously a rant and a rave, as well as the final kick-in-the-pants it took for me to start this blog.

I found the resort through Groupon - a very amazing tool that everyone living in a major city should look into - and booked a night for $149. Which is quite a bit lower than the going rate. I wanted to just drive up and have a Night Away with Brian. No interruptions (except for his phone ringing, grr), no animals, no issues. Just him, me, a very nice dinner, a moonlit ride in a horse-drawn sleigh, and some privacy.
I had to re-book the room three times because of weather concerns. We finally made the trip up in the middle of January.

The first problem we encountered was when we tried to park the car. I'm sure the Valet is very good at his job, but I like to know where my car is. Also, we only had one bag apiece, there was no reason to take up a bell hop - not when people were coming in with dozens of items. So I parked the car myself.
Or, tried to. There were no handicap spots marked. There was a section of parking listed as "Valet and Handicapped Parking Only" but no blue signs to be seen. I took a Valet spot and then asked the Valet when he came over with the next vehicle what was going on.
He pointed to a flat part in the snow and told me those were the handicap places. I asked where the sign was - he said it was buried in the snow bank.
The spots were no where near cleared. I stayed in the Valet parking. There's no reason for Brian to slip in 3" of snow.
Since we were parked in the handicap area, I assumed there would be a ramp so Brian could get into the building. There was, not too far from the supposed handicap parking. Unfortunately, the ramp was covered in Yellow caution tape, and was unusable. I am not in the habit of ducking under strips of caution tape - and no one else is either, I assume, since the ramp had not been cleared of snow.

Now, for a resort wherein a discounted room will run you $150 - and that's the basic room - I would anticipate they would notice some one made a reservation for an accessible room. It is not as if they had no inkling that somebody with special needs was checking in. In fact, they had well over a month of notice. We didn't sneak up on them.

Brian's a trooper, though, and takes the stairs - carrying his half of the luggage AND the bottles of wine - up past the basement level to the lobby level. We find the elevator and ride up to the second floor, which is something else that should be addressed.
Why do hotels put handicap rooms on upper floors? In case of fire, the elevators are shut off - and even if they're not, they're definitely not safe. You see signs everywhere saying to take the stairs in case of emergency, not the elevator. So why, on earth, would you put a wheelchair room ANYwhere other than the first floor? The people who may not be able to take the stairs should not be required to navigate them in case of emergency. You're not just risking their lives, but the lives of everyone caught on the stairs above them... because there's no way I'm sitting in a burning hotel and waiting for help to arrive if Brian's in his chair. Him, me, his feet, AND his chair are going down those damn stairs, if I have to carry it all on my back.

So we find our room, and the first thing I notice is I cannot open the door all the way. Once I get into the room, I see this is because the night stand is too close to the door. The door frame is just barely the correct width - but if the door can't swing completely open, you get the 2" width of door still standing inside the doorframe, plus the space for the hinge, and the doorway is no longer navigable. If you can swing the door open the full 180-degrees, the door is completely out of the frame and doesn't impede traffic. So, had we been able to get a wheelchair out of the car in 3" of snow, and had the wheelchair ramp been usable and we were able to get the 'chair into the hotel, Brian would have scraped all the skin off his knuckles on the door, had we been able to get the 'chair through the door at all.
Normally I can tell just by looking whether Brian's wheelchair - with him in it - will fit through tight places. I really ought to start carrying a tape measure with me, though.

In the room, we have two arm chairs, a writing desk and chair, the dresser-slash-television stand, the bed and a night stand. The bathroom door swings out - hallelujah - and is wider than the room entry door. I peek into the bathroom, as is always my first stop, and notice three things:
(1) There is not room for a wheelchair to make a 360-degree turn. Its a roll in, roll backwards out kind of bathroom.
(2) The shower is a bathtub. With no bench. So someone would have to get out of their 'chair and lower themselves into the tub, and then somehow lift themselves OUT of the tub, soaking wet, to get back into the chair. Yes, there are couple of bars to hold onto. But for a resort this is pretty ridiculous. The bathroom has obviously been modernized - if they were sacrificing the historic/antique nature of the hotel already, why not do it properly?
(3) The handheld shower head, while positioned very nicely, is only operable if you pull the lever at the wall shower head - six feet or more off the floor. Which is not possible for someone stuck in a seated position.

There is a large discrepancy between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. I doubt the ADA specifies that a hand-held shower needs to have its controls located somewhere that someone wheelchair-bound can turn the damn thing on... but is that something that really needs to be said?

After 30 minutes unsuccessfully spent fighting a timing-out WiFi connection while we shared a glass or two of wine, Brian and I started getting things laid out for our evening. The plan was a sleigh ride at 6:30, back in the hotel by 7:00, and downstairs for dinner at 7:30. Which was doable. Brian needed to iron his pants, however. The iron and board were in the closet, which is wedged between the foot of the bed and the dresser holding the television.
Before you ask, no, there was no more than 2' between the bed and the television. And the closet door - behind which are the bath robes, the iron, the ironing board, the luggage rest, and all the coat hangers - is narrower than most "normal" bathroom doors.
Apparently, people in wheelchairs aren't allowed to use bathrobes. Or ironing boards.

I was beyond frustrated with our room.
I understand this is a 100+ year-old resort, nestled in the mountains of New Hampshire. I understand grandfather clauses, I understand maintaining the intergrity of historic structures. However, if you are grandfathered-in and do not possess accessible facilities, you sure as hell shouldn't sell me a handicap room. You owe me some honesty - allow me to take my business to someone who can actually accomodate me.

My husband is blessedly functional. He's very strong, and can pull himself out of a bathtub and into a wheelchair. He has long since built up the strength of character to maintain his dignity as he crawls across a bathroom floor. He is very resilient. Should he have to be?
I have a friend who is paraplegic. He doesn't have the option of putting on prosthetics to stand up out of his wheelchair and grab a bathrobe or turn on a shower head. What would he have done, had he tried to stay at this hotel?

Our sleigh ride was everything I had hoped. Our dinner was fantastic. We did have a good time. For that I can thank Brian's ability to walk, his relentless pursuit of being ordinary.

The next morning, when we checked out of the hotel, the desk clerk asked how our stay had been. I said, "The room was not very accessible."
The clerk replied, "Oh," and continued checking us out. Not, "Oh?" Not a question. "Oh," eyes drop back to the computer screen, the next thing out of her mouth is the money I owe them on the account as she hands me the bill and then receipt. Tells us to have a nice day and then goes back to whatever it was she was doing when we arrived at her desk.
Now, I could have gone off on her. But why? She obviously doesn't care.
I vote for option two, the scathing letter to her superiors.
Which I wrote, the day after I arrived home. The resort accomodated me by sending me a questionaire, asking me about my stay and giving me unlimited space at the end to type in any comments or concerns I had.
What I gave them was a very concentrated, shorter, much harsher (admittedly a little rude) version of this blog. I used words like "inconsiderate," "rude," and "illegal."

The day after sending in my questionnaire, I got a phonecall from the Mount Washington. Their Manager was appalled, upset, and grateful all at once; it seems she has only been on the job five weeks, and Omni had only recently taken possession of the Mount Washington Hotel. She had no idea there were such issues with the facilities, and she was pretty adament on finding out who it was at the desk that morning. Which is reasonable - that desk clerk has the power to either exacerbate or completely deflate the situation, and if I were the suing type, she would have partially at fault for disregarding my complaint.
The Manager was grateful that I had given her all this feedback. She was grateful to have the opportunity to fix a problem she didn't even know existed. She was apologetic and thankful, she listened when I explained my husband's disability, and she seemed to really take to heart the knowledge that there are thousands of servicemen and women coming home missing limbs, and we have a population of young adults who go out of their way to look ordinary, but still have special needs. They might push their wheelchair into the hotel, but they still rely on it, even if for only 20 or 30 minutes a day.
The Manager asked - repeatedly - if there was anything she could do for me to try to make the situation better. I told her - honestly - that her sincerity and her desire to improve were really all I wanted. I told her that, regardless of whether it is right or not, there are more hotels that are NOT accessible than those that ARE, and it was something Brian & I have grown accustomed to. The fact that she WANTS to change and she WANTS to make things better is more than we typically get, and I was grateful for her phone call.

She closed the conversation by stating that, should I ever wish to return to her hotel, I give her a call, and she would "take care of everything," although she didn't specify what that included.

I hope to go back, in a year or four or five, once I hear word that they've finished renovations, and see if they've fixed anything. I am cautiously optimistic... and with any luck, I'll still have this blog running and be able to tell you what I find.
For now, though, I have to recommend AGAINST the Omni Mount Washington Hotel for anyone who can't go without their 'chair. Its a nice place, the dinner was amazing, the sleigh ride was picturesque and romantic, and the location can't be beat... but the rooms are not accessible enough to make the stay enjoyable overall.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Beginning

In June of 2006, my soldier - Brian - was wounded by an IED while serving in Iraq. He sustained life-altering injuries, leaving his feet and portions of both legs behind when he came home. He became what they call a trans-tibial amputee, a double-below-knee, a dual-BK. I set eyes on him for the first time - all those long months on webcams nonwithstanding - in July, right after he got his first pair of prosthetics.
By September I was planning.
In October I quit my job, packed up my life, and moved cross-country to help him recover. I lived with him in an army medical center for a full year. I was there for surgeries and infections, antibiotics and pyschologists, red tape and news of fallen brothers.
Two years to the day after the explosion that changed his life, we married. Our anniversary is his Alive Day. We waited long enough for him to be able to walk down the aisle.

That was a year and a half ago. In the 3+ years we've been together, I've gotten a crash course in the ADA. We have a specially adapted home for him, my friends and family all seem to have made little adjustments so that he has an easier time when we come visit, his mother had an accessible bathroom built in her basement. There are a million things you never think of when everything in your body works the way nature intended... something as simple as stepping into the shower is never the same once you've seen it thru his eyes.

Our downfall seems to be our love of travel. Having a house adapted to your needs spoils you, in a sense, so that you forget how much of a PITA it is to not have a shower bench or a wide enough doorway. Some places have surprised me, others shocked me, but the only universal truth has seemed to be that you just don't know whether someplace that claims accessibility actually is accessible until you roll in and look.

I've unabashedly walked into men's rooms to make sure Brian's wheelchair will fit inside, to make sure there's a stall with a door on it and a doorway wide enough for him to make it through without scraping the skin off his knuckles. I've called out managers and I've written nasty letters. But I still won't know whether someplace will work for us until I've walked into it.

Which is why I'm writing this blog. I've decided to start collecting all my stories and publish them for others to see. That way, some one else with a penchant for travel and the disadvantage of wheels instead of feet on the ground might get some little head's up.

If you've got stories to share, let me know! I can't (and won't!) spend my life visiting hotels just for writing material... but I have a lot of friends with similar disadvantages, and maybe if we band together we can help each other out. I don't intend to pull any punches - I will praise where its earned and burn where its deserved. If I say something about your hotel or restaurant, don't get mad at me - fix the problem. I'm just telling it like I see it.