How I Make Hotel Rooms Accessible for My Low Vision

I’ve done some traveling this summer and stayed in a variety of hotels in both the U.S. and Europe. I’ve always loved traveling and am excited that travel feels doable now that so many people have been vaccinated against COVID. With my vision impairments, I run into some issues in hotels, so I have come up with a routine I use to maximize my ability to see and be comfortable and safe in my room and the public areas of the hotel.

Room numbers not always visible to me, so I’m now used to putting my face right up to a door to try to find the room number. I can often see that there is a room number on the room doors or right next to them, but I can’t read the numbers because of the artistic font used. I sometimes take a picture of the number with my phone and then make the picture big enough for me to read. The first number I take a picture of is never my room number, but having that one number down helps orient me a bit.

Accessible hotel rooms are typically designed with wheelchair users in mind. Accessible rooms usually have doorways wide enough for a wheelchair, wheelchair access on both sides of the bed, enough room for a wheelchair user to make a U-turn, light switches and thermostats low enough for someone in a wheelchair to reach them, and a wheelchair accessible sink and shower. I have yet to find a room that is really accessible for someone with my kind of low vision without some tweaks.

Every hotel room I’ve stayed in during the past five years has been too dark for me once the sun goes down. I now routinely move lamps around, it they are available, and I’ve even called the front desk to ask if another lamp could be brought to me (it could). I’ve learned the hard way to move lamps around before the sun goes down, when I can still see where the cords are plugged in and where the outlets are in the spot I want to move the lamp to. Sometimes hotel rooms have a writing desk that doesn’t have a lamp on it; that’s the first place I move a lamp to. Hotel rooms often have a comfortable reading chair but no light source near that chair. If I can move a table lamp to a nightstand or dresser that is near that chair, I do, but sometimes that isn’t possible and I have to either call the front desk to see if a floor lamp is available (sometimes one is) or I just have to not use the reading chair.

The next thing I do is find every light switch in the room and figure out which light it operates. Light switches are often the same color as the wall, so I sometimes have to guess where a light switch might be and run my hands along the wall until I find it. Typical places are right inside the door, at the joint of two walls, and near a door frame. Occasionally I have to call the front desk to ask where a light switch is. Usually, the person who answers my call initially says something unhelpful like, “It’s there, I promise.” When I explain that I am vision-impaired, they usually send someone to the room to show me where the switch is. Once, the person who was sent had to admit defeat and say, “I don’t know where the switch for that light is!” Nobody ever found it.

I then walk around to each light in the room and figure out how to turn it on. Many modern light fixtures have switches that are designed to not be obtrusive, which means they are hard to see. I often have to run my hands all over a lamp to find the switch. When that fails, I start running my hands down the cord to see if the switch is on the cord. A few times I’ve had to call the front desk to ask how a particular light works.

I try to do all this before the sun goes down, because when I come back to my room after dark, it’s nice to have some familiarity with how the lights turn on. This isn’t possible if I check in after dark, and then I rely on my cell phone’s flashlight to help me navigate the light switches.

The next thing I do is scan the room for contrast issues. This usually means making sure there’s a light-colored surface for me to put my own dark-colored things and a dark-colored surface for me to put my own light-colored things. I can easily lose a white keycard on a white or light-colored surface, so it’s important to scope out a place to put my keycard where it will be visible to me. I can put down a white washcloth from the bathroom on a dark surface, like a dresser or TV console, and then put dark things on top of it to make them visible. Hotel bathrooms are often white, so I use a black bag for my toiletries. Many rooms have a white tissue box holder in a white bathroom, so I move the tissue box holder to a dark piece of furniture in the room.

Another place where contrast issues can come up is with clever drawer or cabinet pulls that are designed to blend seamlessly into the furniture. I spend a lot of time when I first in a room running my hands over surfaces, looking for pulls.

In one room recently, I accidentally swept something I hadn’t seen off a dark wood desk. I heard the object clatter to the floor and dropped to my hands and knees to pick it up. It was a big dark room phone.

I can’t tweak the public areas of a hotel, so I have to move through them very carefully. Dim lighting is everywhere and I’ve tripped over coffee tables, walked into glass panes, and spent way too long trying to decipher which restroom is for women (in a few places, I never was certain and figured in the age of gender neutral bathrooms, it shouldn’t matter if I go into the wrong one).

If possible, I look at photos of the hotel’s lobby and outdoor spaces online before I go to scope out potential danger for myself. I can enlarge the photos and get a sense of what to look for. For example, I noticed ahead of time that one hotel I was staying in had a very large water feature that blended into a surrounding patio. When I got to that hotel, I walked very carefully over to where I knew from the photos the water feature was and found some cues to help me avoid tumbling into it during my stay.

Once I’ve done all that, I can commence the part of staying in a hotel room that I’m really good at: relaxing.