Privacy, Access Laws and Common Sense


Everywhere you turn these days there’s talk of privacy. In fact we’re literally being bombarded with privacy notices. Every time you visit a new doctor, dentist or other medical provider you’re asked to sign a privacy policy and you get a copy to take along with you. In fact I recently found a purse I hadn’t used since I broke my foot several years ago, and it was crammed full of privacy policies — from the orthopedist, the lab, the hospital and even the medical equipment supplier.

In the long run, I know it’s good that my medical history is protected by these privacy laws, but sometimes it seems that the paperwork is a bit much. Still, I know it’s necessary. And everyone that goes into a new doctor’s office expects to come out with at least one copy of their privacy policy these days.But what about the airlines, cruise lines and lodging establishments — how much are you required to disclose to them about your disability when you request accessible services? And how much can they legally ask you?

The bottom line is, you can disclose as much as you want, but they can only ask you what accommodations you require because of your disability. In other words, they can’t ask you the details of your disability, require a doctor’s certification or even ask you to demonstrate your disability. And if they aren’t providing some specific service for you — say a lift-equipped van or an airline aisle chair — they can’t even ask if you use a wheelchair or if you can walk. Only what accessible services you need

And most folks in the tourism industry are very well aware of this; in fact they have to attend access training classes which emphasize this fact. And again, privacy is a good thing, but sometimes it kind of gets in the way of access and understanding.

For example, I recently conducted an accessible travel seminar and I asked folks in my group what they would do if the airline damaged their wheelchair and they were only offered a clunky airport wheelchair as a loaner. One man who uses a scooter quickly spoke up and told me he would tell them that it just wasn’t appropriate. I asked him why. He replied that he couldn’t use it. We went round and round like that for a few minutes, until I told him that most airline employees don’t understand that he can?t use his arms to push a manual wheelchair. Furthermore, since they can’t ask about the details of his disability, he has to tell them specifically why the airport wheelchair isn’t appropriate. In his case I’d simply say that I need a motorized scooter like the one I had, because I can’t push myself in a manual wheelchair.

Sometimes you have to give up a little information to get the appropriate accommodation.

And then there was a gal who wrote me about here recent air travel experience. She checked her walker as baggage and used an airport wheelchair to get to and from the gate. Unfortunately her walker was misrouted and nobody offered her the use of an airline wheelchair until her walker was returned to her. I can’t say for certain why this happened, but if I had to venture a guess I’d say it was because the person pushing her wheelchair was afraid to cross the line; after all he can’t ask if she can walk. Granted, that’s no excuse, and he certainly could have used some common sense and said “Will you require a loaner wheelchair until your walker is returned?”

But he didn’t. Luckily she had a backup wheelchair at home, but maybe the next person won’t.

So again, I think access training and awareness is a great thing, but a little common sense goes a lot farther. So the next time you run into an access roadblock, try and look at it from the employee’s perspective. I know you shouldn’t have to, but sometimes it helps.

Truth be told, most folks in the hospitality industry are probably clueless about your disability and afraid to ask too many questions about it. So sometimes you have to volunteer a little information — just a little — to make things go smoother.

And sometimes when they go over the line, you have to set them straight. More on that, and about how one cruise line is crossing that line in my next blog.

Stay tuned!



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