Al & Olga’s North Carolina Experience

Back in May, I called a local Cashiers, North Carolina motel and made reservations for the 4th of July weekend, indicating that my boyfriend, Al, was paralyzed with a brain injury from a motor vehicle accident 3 years ago and was in a wheelchair. We needed H/C accommodations, which I heard they had. The person on the phone said that they were not ADA but that since it’s purchase, pull bars were added in some of the rooms (and I thought I heard, that some doors had been widened), and they had done some work around the place, making it accessible...not ADA compliant, but accessible. That was fine. They had a room with a roll-in shower and I said I had a shower chair and understood "not ADA" but that we could manage. Maybe it was a presumptuous to believe that if you have a roll in shower, you can roll into the bathroom!! Our house here in Florida is not ADA compliant but it works...so perhaps, naively, I just figured it would be a little challenging, but none the less, workable.

We arrived on July 2nd and parked in front of what would turn out to be our room. "How perfect," I thought. I was let in to see the room but when I saw the bathroom, my knees weakened and my heart fell to the pit of my stomach. The wheelchair could not get in to the bathroom...so what was the point of having a roll-in shower?

Now understand, that we had driven over 600 miles from Tarpon Springs, Florida. This was a dream come true for Al & me..after almost 3 years of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, and a doom & gloom prognosis, we were finally able to make this trip to see our friends...and we had no place to stay. The owner indicated that there was another room at the motel with a king sized bed and possibly a wider bathroom door, but this was reserved for someone else who also expected a microwave, air conditioning, color TV and because he was a smoker, there was a porch for him to sit.

But what to do about us??? The owner really had no answers! She suggested that we go back to another town but that was not acceptable! We had friends in Cashiers, the reason we were in North Carolina in the first place! Then, the owner called the motel up the way, and we went there. They had a room for one night, labeled as H/C accessible! We could get the wheelchair in...but quite frankly, to label a room H/C and not have changed out the toilet to a H/C toilet astounded me. None the less, we needed a room for 3 nights and everything was booked up for the 4th of July weekend....In panic now, we went back to the first motel.

The owner took me to see the other room where the door to the bathroom was wide enough...the toilet was not H/C height and there was a bathtub, but those are things we could overcome. There was a little step up onto the porch, but I had brought Al’s portable ramp. As I was becoming more and more upset, the owner made it a point of reminding me that I had said everything was going to be fine, over the phone, and I kept repeating that when I heard "roll-in shower" I figured it was a roll-in bathroom... not ADA, but workable....not impossible. All I needed was a place where Al could use a toilet and get a shower like a human being. We had a reservation too, I argued. The owners attempted to get in touch with the guy whose name was on the registration for the accessible room, but the phone number was not valid and there was no listing in the area code (not unlisted..no listing) he had given. They expressed little or no sympathy for the situation...the rooms could not be changed because it would not be fair to the other guy, who, at this point wasn’t even there yet, and who, by all accounts, had no disability...but he’d been expecting an air conditioned room with a porch to smoke on and a microwave oven. So, that was that.

I even offered to pay more for the accessible room if they would change us...$80/night rather than the $78 per night they quoted...but no, they could not make the change, and as I became more and more upset, with an incredible insensitivity I heard, "The first thing you need to do, is calm down!"

Calm down? By this time I was enraged, crying, and upset. For me, I’d sleep in the car and use the facilities at a gas station. But I have to worry about Al, who cannot walk, who is paralyzed on the left side, whose life it more precious to me than my own, who can’t just camp out by the side of the road...and I have this totally ambulatory guy telling me that I have to calm down! We had made reservations too. But, you see, Al & I were stuck...where could we go? It was easy to tell me that it wasn’t right to give away the other room without speaking with the man first...but under the circumstances, I insisted, if the other guy were a human being, he’d understand. It wasn’t that Al & I didn’t like the color of the decor of our reserved room.... Al could not get into the bathroom...it was truly a matter of reasonably accommodating an individual with a disability.

My last words as I stormed off in tears were something like, "I hope you never have disability and get treated like this". At this point, I had no clue as to what Al & I would do!

How did this adventure end? Well, I called our friend Frank, in tears, from the parking lot of the motel and we headed to their home. Our friends carried the wheelchair up the steps into the house. Their bathroom door was also too narrow, just like at the motel but, thanks to the love and friendship that Frank & Mark have for Al, they marched down to Lowe’s, bought a 3’0" door and by the end of the day had installed it. Using some extra pieces of wood, they built a temporary H/C ramp. Al & I stayed at Frank & Lorraine’s. On some level, the weekend worked out better because we had more time with our friends and now their house is accessible for future visits. God bless Frank, Mark, Andrew, Lorraine, Bretney & Debbie. Al Calabrese is a lucky man to have them as friends.

The bottom line is that a disability can happen to even the strongest, most dynamic of individuals. It could be a spouse, mother, father, sister, brother or child...no one is protected against disabilities when they occur. Before his accident, Al was a strong, active, full of energy, life loving, Italian American male, having survived Viet Nam (Navy UDT ‘65-’69), Wall Street and 47 years of living life to the fullest! He was struck down by a Passlode nail gun which flew through the window of his truck hitting him in the head! It can happen to anyone.

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people like Al and in public places, provides him with access..."reasonable accommodation" they call it. There was a reasonable accommodation for which we would have gladly paid more per night than the ambulatory man whose requirements were a microwave, air-conditioning, king-sized bed and a place to smoke. What would we have done if we did not have friends there? Where would we have gone? We were not asking for a hand out, reduced rate or anything special. Just a simple switch of rooms to allow Al the "luxury" of using a toilet.

Needing a microwave is not a disability. The microwave could’ve been moved to a different room. Needing air conditioning is not a disability. It may be a little uncomfortable but the evenings are cool in North Carolina. Desiring a king-sized bed is not a disability. When you are able, a mat on the floor will do. Needing a place to smoke is not a disability. You can smoke anywhere you want, especially when you can walk anywhere you want to go.

But, to sit on a toilet like a man, to be able to brush your teeth and take a shower in the morning, when you are in a wheelchair, ain’t gonna happen if you can’t get the wheelchair into the bathroom in the first place!!!

Postscript:

On the first night of our trip we arrived in Macon, Georgia where I had made reservations at a Comfort Inn described in the AAA book as "fully accessible." Although the doors were wide and the toilet up to code, there was a bathtub with a stationary showerhead and essentially no way that a person in a wheelchair could shower, even with a shower chair. In addition, the motel offered free breakfast in the lobby, but the only way to get to the lobby was out side the motel and up the driveway, which was on a pretty steep incline (especially pushing a 200 lb man in a 50 lb wheelchair). Luckily for us that morning, it was not raining or snowing! Upon returning to Florida on July 6th, I wrote to Comfort Inn and AAA. On Friday, July 24th I received a call from the manager of the motel. She said that they went to our room and were embarrassed. They had never realized the level of difficulty both in the shower and in accessing the lobby until my letter. As a result she said, they were going to remodel 2 rooms off the lobby on the second floor, providing both with roll-in showers and protected access to the dining area. In addition, they were refunding our money!

Post – Postscript:

Upon returning to Florida, I also started contacting the Jackson County Building Inspections Department. I initiated a "public records request" sending a $25 check for copies and postage and asking for copies of building permits, inspection cards, building plans, variances, special exceptions and anything that would shed light on the construction done on the motel in 1996, post the enactment of the Federal ADA.

Initially, the response I received from the Building Official was guarded but polite. He indicated that they did not keep copies of the building plans (North Carolina does not require retention of plans after a unit is constructed) but that he could send me copies of permits, etc., as well as my money back as I did not have to pay for copies. He assured me in his first correspondence that the motel in question was in fact, in compliance. I responded, thanking him, but wondered where the permits and check were, as they were not enclosed as had been indicated in the letter. He immediately forwarded the information to me. I read the documents. I looked at the chronology of inspections and immediately noticed that there were entries on at least 4 inspection cards citing deficiencies in the H/C compliance area. I wrote yet another letter.

On August 26, 1998 I received a response to my final inquiry. This time, the Building Official brought to my attention that the State of North Carolina had adopted an Accessibility Code prior to ADA. He assured me that his office had worked well with this code as well as local handicap organizations and that he expressed regret that the incident occurred in their community. He annotated the site plan I had drawn from memory with the location of the newly constructed rooms and informed me that the motel was not required to add a H/C room because they already had an existing room prior to applying for the 1996 building permit. The State of North Carolina requires that there be a minimum of one unit or five percent of the total units to be in compliance, which they were.

There was one more final paragraph, however, and I quote, "Since your correspondence with this office we have checked the existing handicap unit and agree it does not meet the N.C. Accessibility Code. The owners will bring this unit into compliance."

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