Excuse Me, Does A Ladder Come With That Bed?

By Jacquie Tellalian

Ah, sunshine, warm temps and blue skies–finally it’s summertime! And nothing says summer like getting away for a little r & r. Being disabled, you get pretty used to hassles you encounter when you’re on unfamiliar turf, but if your vacation plans include a hotel with a wheelchair-accessible room, you’ll likely run into a problem that we’ve all been dealing with for years and one that I am becoming increasingly vocal about and that is, towering bed heights.

When you’ve been in a wheelchair for as long as I have (don’t ask, but let’s just say I’m north of 50 and south of retirement age), disabled-specific hotel rooms are a giant leap forward for those of us who grew up living in the shadows of society without any of the conveniences we’ve seen with the passage of the ADA. Call me crazy, but with roomy bathrooms, grab bars and maybe (in newer or renovated hotels) a roll-in shower, shouldn’t someone in a wheelchair also be able to get into the bed without needing an airplane to fly you up there?

When I recently attempted a weekend getaway to Atlantic City, NJ, my search for a lower bed left me with more questions than answers. Hotel personnel – at least those willing to return my calls – were shockingly uninformed about the very people accessible rooms were designed to service. Some didn’t see the beds as high at all. Others thought we all travel with motorized hoists or musclemen health aides to toss us in at the end of the night. One even asked why I couldn’t stand (true!). But most just couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of someone in a wheelchair needing to transfer laterally onto a bed without assistance.

To make matters worse, the runaround I got trying to find someone – anyone – who would even measure the bed height in an accessible room was alone a Herculean feat requiring numerous emails and dozens of phone calls. When it finally came time to ask about what they could do to lower the bed, I heard an almost unanimous chorus of clueless, chirping birds circling above their heads!

After speaking to everyone from reservation takers to the head of housekeeping, I landed on the voicemail of the Executive Director of the Front Office at a splashy, new resort. The gentleman, to his credit, was attentive and well aware of the bed-height issue because his elderly mother complained about the very same thing all the time! Curiously, the solution was one that I had proposed in my very first email to the hotel: if possible, simply remove the box spring and place the mattress directly onto the bed frame, often that lowers the height to a manageable level.

Hardly a novel concept, it’s been done when I’ve stayed at any number of hotels over the years, but it just doesn’t occur to them that a lower, more wheelchair-friendly bed should be standard in at least some of their disabled-specific rooms. Most hotels of course, want you to be comfortable, but as I can personally attest to, that’s not always the case. A previous trip to Atlantic City had me sleeping on a filthy, stain-filled, pullout sofa in a disabled suite which they gave me just to shut me up after I had refused their offer to set up a single-sized cot in my room – right next to the sky-high, king bed! Why should I pay for an accessible room and then sleep on a sliver of a cot because the hotel doesn’t have the ability to modify a bed you can get into from a wheelchair?

Of course we all know that a there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all-disabled hotel room, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect lodgings with disabled-specific rooms to have some kind of provision in place that would allow their staff to quickly lower a bed’s height upon request by a wheelchair user. By the way, don’t think that nosebleed height beds are only a problem for the disabled. Since I began writing this, I’ve also heard from short people and senior citizens alike – all echoing the same complaint. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the ADA that addresses the bed height issue, so each of us are pretty much on our own in this little battle, but I do have some tips that have always worked for me.

1) Even if you are booking a disabled room online, take the time to call the hotel directly. Ask for a front desk manager and then tell them about your bed-height concerns (or any others). For example, if the bathroom has a bath seat, but you need a bath transfer bench, chances are the hotel will know where you can rent one that will deliver to the hotel, often on short notice. Most hotels are happy to work with you, but it may take a few calls to get the right person on the phone. If you get attitude from staff, take your business elsewhere – you will find other places that aim to please.

2) If the bed height isn’t a problem – great – but if it is, don’t just sit there and take it – SPEAK UP IMMEDIATELY!! Hotel maintenance staff deal with all kinds of problems and this is one that many have probably already run across. If they do seem baffled, try to give them as much information as you can on what you need so they can figure out what to do.

3) Don’t be shy! Offer suggestions such as the one I previously mentioned first. Removing the box spring and having the mattress sit directly on the bed frame often solves the height problem quickly and with a minimum of hassle. You may not be sleeping on a cloud of luxury that only a 35” high bed can apparently provide, but you will be able to get in and out of it yourself – a much better trade-off in my opinion.

4) And finally, be a gracious guest. If modifications are made to your room bed by maintenance, thank them for their help with a smile (I offer a tip). Showing your appreciation for their time and effort helps pave the way for the next disabled person that needs it done. I’ve also been known to drop a thank you note to the hotel letting them know that their willingness to do whatever was necessary to accommodate me will result in future business and telling others about my wonderful experience there. If you like to write reviews, YELP! is a great online outlet for sharing info – both pro or con.

5) Also, if you’re a literary vigilante like I am, write letters to hotel bigwigs and associations and let them know that bed heights are a major problem that needs addressing. Trust me, it works – I wouldn’t be here writing this if I hadn’t decided to take this issue on after my experiences! Government agencies and corporate personnel are often listed online, so finding them isn’t hard. Taking action is very empowering, so speak up!

Remember, being disabled means we deal with life’s inconveniences daily and (I think) adapt better than our able-bodied counterparts in odd or difficult situations. By planning ahead and telling people what you need in advance, you not only help yourself, but you help others learn too and in turn, that creates more awareness for all.

Okay, now get out there and enjoy!


  1. As Jacquie Tellalians cousin, I can personally attest to this ongoing problem that Jacquie Tellalian is comforted each time she travels to a hotel. At one location I removed the box spring and placed it on the terrace because the bed was to high. Also the bathroom was wheel chair accessible with wheel in shower. The built in shower seat was short and once you sat down you could not reach the faucets to turn on the water. Hence no shower that night. Jeffrey Genjian

    • Rosalie Green says:

      I was invited to a “destination wedding” in upstate NY. This is a well known tourist town with mostly Bed and Breakfast Inns. I have been searching for days for something that has an accessible room. Finally found a room that was just recently converted meaning they put a ramp up to the room. Fortunately I have a narrow power chair so I will be able to get through the doorway. I do use a walker at times and am keeping my fingers crossed that I will be able to get into the bathroom. As far as the shower, who knows? I once put a folding chair into the shower and might have to do that here.

      • Jacquie says:

        good luck Rosalie – I hope the room works for you! I’ve thought about staying at bed and breakfasts myself, but as a wheelchair-only user, I have never seen them as a truly viable option. usually the inns are too old to be retrofitted comfortably and oh yes, did I mention that to retain that rustic charm, the beds are almost always too high!

        please get back to me on how this place fared – it would help to be able to add it to my database on accessible places to stay.


  2. Jacquie, Loved your article. I’ve been working on this issue ever since the industry started putting in place what I call the princess and the pea beds. I hope you are aware that DOJ is looking at this issue and hopefully soon they will issue new regs around bed height. What I’ve heard is that they will likely require that only some ADA rooms have lower beds. I can live with that so long as the industry complies. Thanks again for your humorous insights.

    • Jacquie says:

      thanks Bonnie, glad you enjoyed it! yes, I do know the DOJ is making an attempt to examine the bed height problem, but as I stated in the article, there are no ADA regulations in place, so it could take a very long time before anything is actually done. and really, even having a few disabled rooms with lower beds would be better than none at all.

      what’s amazing to me is how matter-of-fact the hotels are about it and how few disabled people are speaking up! everyone who can, should be firing off letters not only to the DOJ, but to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Sr. VP of Governmental Affairs, Kevin Maher (kmaher@ahla.com) to let him know that this issue needs to be addressed NOW! but take note, the AHLA just got the DOJ to extend the compliance date for hotel pool lifts from March of this year to January of 2013, so any disabled-related topics really seem to get put on the back burner whenever possible.

  3. Dennis says:

    I come from an age when handicapped parking did not exist and accessible rooms had only been dreamed about by those who needed them, so let me say that I am very grateful that real attempts to make hotel rooms accessible are being made. I also understand that “the disabled” have in fact a very broad spectrum of needs and that not all needs of all disabled people will be met by any room. You can write more regs until we are drowning in them, you will still need to adjust and improvise.
    That being said, I have seen some things that have inspired me to wonder if I were the first handicapped person to have ever used the room. When you find problems let the hotel know immediately and follow up with a letter. Don’t blame, educate.

  4. Claire Stidsen says:

    The main article written is so “right on”! My husband has bee a paraplegic since 1970 and believe me things are so much better today verses then for traveling. And what with all the ADA involvement and new technology I must say it is much more enjoyable to travel nowadays. That is until you reach your destinations, or stops in between, and you must sleep. Well first you need to get off the road at least an hour before you actually want to just so you can measure beds at different places you think you might stay. In our situation I carry my own measure tape and have often undone the 3 inches of fluffy comforter and covers on a bed just to find the actual top of the bed from whence to measure the height from the floor. Most places are ok with this, especially when many times after explaining why they totally understand. But as a retired nurse I find it rather inconsistent that anyone can say they are comlying to make a room accessible and then leave the bed height up for grabs! And in a day and age when low profile bedding is abundantly available through many top manufactuers I feel these establishments have no reason not to order the correct lower height bedding for the two or three accessible rooms they provide. For many who are disabled and who stay at mostly chain establishments may I remind everyone that those prices include amenities such as an exercise room, a pool or spa and yet anyone who is disabled cannot use these amenities and yet no deduction in their room rate is made for that. The to top it off the accessible room comes with a 35′ high bed which a disabled person or paraplegic is supposed to navigate up into from a whelchair height of approx 24 -25” depending on the height of the cushion they sit on is. Because most wheelcahirs are a standard size and height this number can easily be taken into consideration when lodging facilities buy their beds. Education is a big part of the solution to this problem and I must say myself, although we do it when we travel, after we have gotten where we are going I am just happy not to have to discuss bed height with anyone, anymore until we travel again. However, I have come to realize that in light of the fact that education may be the only answer, since really the managers of these places may be sympathetic but chances are they will never have the power to make things change, I have a moralobligation to do more of it. More publicity and more open dialogue with executives in these chains may make a difference. So I intend to do more letter writng myself and on this trip to Colorado I will write down more names and address for people who do have the power to make cahnges, takes pictures of room difficulties as we encounter them, and after we have completed our trip I will publish these details to as many people as I have names for in hope of making someone understand how totally inconsiderate these beds are to the needs of handicap or disabled persons and their ability to overcome made made inaccessible beds, not to mention the safety precautions a disabled person must face just trying to go to bed, is simply not acceptable. We have come too far to allow a simlpe educational barrier prevent us and our loved ones from enjoying any vacations they are able to navigate and afford.

  5. I have had a problem with bed heights for years. I’ve talked to hotel/motel reps and most are clueless, but I have found most will measure a bed height once the problem is explained to them. On a recent trip, my wife and I made numerous phone calls and finally found rooms with bed heights of 24 inches. Anything above that height is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for me to transfer into. I have also noted differences in hotel brands regarding bed heights. Since many motels are franchised, it is sometimes possible to educate the owner or ownership group, if you can figure out who they are. The initial Justice Department recommendations based on initial comments was for bed heights to be 21-23 inches; however, I am not holding my breath that they will actually issue those recommendations. Believe it or not, I once talked to a DOJ “specialist” who told me she suggests to callers that bed heights should be the same as toilet heights (17-19 inches). After my initial shock regarding her suggestion, I calmly explained that since mattresses compress when used, most wheelchair users would never be able to get back in the chair from that low height. I also begged her to never make that recommendation again. This incident may demonstrate why so many people are not aware of this issue, but I know wheelchair users are quite aware.