Welcome to the first blog post in a new series called the Reader Mailbag.

About once a week, I’ll dip into the mailbag to answer questions about accessible travel from readers just like you. If you have a question you’d like answered, send an e-mail to mailbag@wheelchairtravel.org.

This week’s question comes from Dolores from San Diego, California. She asked:

When I stay at a hotel, my room is always on an upper floor. Why do hotels put handicap accessible rooms anywhere but the first floor? What happens in a blackout or if the building catches fire? How do wheelchair users get out then?

That’s a great question, Dolores, and it’s something I am asked often.

There are a few things to consider.

First, many hotels don’t have guest rooms on the ground floor at all. The first (and sometimes second) floor is typically used for the lobby, restaurant, bar, offices and meeting space. At the Park Hyatt New York, for instance, guest rooms begin on the third floor.

Ground floor rooms are much more common at budget hotels/motels and at major limited-service brands like Country Inn & Suites, Fairfield Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Hyatt House and Wingate by Wyndham. In nearly all cases, hotels with first floor rooms will have a number of ADA accessible rooms on that floor.

But why aren’t all accessible rooms on the lowest floor possible?

The ADA is itself the answer. Regulations require accessible hotel rooms to be “dispersed among the various classes of guest rooms” offered at a hotel, so as to give people with disabilities an equivalent range of choice. Among the features hotels are directed to consider in achieving adequate dispersion is the room’s view, and high vs. low floor.

Even though I am a power wheelchair user, I always request a high floor room. I like the view from above and find the upper floors to be quieter than the lower ones. But, even requesting a high floor room, I often find myself on the 2nd or 3rd floor, rather than the 20th that I had hoped for!

What about safety in an emergency?

You asked about blackouts and fires. In both cases, the elevator would be out of service. Being stuck on a high floor would not be ideal!

Emergency exit sign.

Fortunately, in the developed world, blackouts and deadly hotel fires are rare. Across hundreds of nights in hotels, I’ve never experienced either. That said, the worst case scenario is always possible. It could happen tonight.

Don’t worry about blackouts. You’ll get out, one way or another. Most hotels have emergency generators anyway.

But a fire is nothing to scoff at. I’m a burn survivor, after all. Fire suppression systems are effective and most hotels with multiple floors have them. There are also Areas of Rescue Assistance in the building’s stairwells. In the event of a fire, go there. Stairwells are encased in cement, well protected and are the first place searched by firemen.

I am confident that first responders will get me out of the burning building. But I also travel with an ADAPTS sling, which was designed to aid people with disabilities in emergency evacuations. The inventor is a friend of mine, and that’s me in the video being carried down the stairs. Having the evacuation sling in my bag gives me extra peace of mind when traveling.

If you’d like an ADAPTS sling of your own, click here and use the promo code WCT15 for 15% off!

Requesting a low-floor ADA room

Unless you stay in a single story hotel, there is no way to guarantee that you’ll be on the lowest floor. That said, requesting a low floor at booking and again at check-in will usually do the trick.

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