At the Ice Rink, Left Out in the Cold

The bleachers at the new Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington can't accommodate people in wheelchairs.
The bleachers at the new Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington can't accommodate people in wheelchairs. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Thursday, February 22, 2007

As I approached the new Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington yesterday, I noted the now-familiar features designed to make such a journey easier for those unable to walk or see.

The curbs at street corners had a gentle grade that fell from sidewalk to roadway. A traffic light chirped to signal when I could safely cross the street. The buttons on the elevator that whisked me to the top of Ballston Common were marked in Braille.

But if I'd been in a wheelchair and wanted to watch skaters gliding on the county-owned Capitals' practice rink, things wouldn't have seemed so friendly. Five steps lead up to the bottom row of bleachers at the ice arena. While there is an aisle behind the top row of bleachers, park a few wheelchairs there and you've blocked the exit, a fire code no-no.

The sad fact is, when it opened in November, the gleaming $42 million facility wasn't compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Some bathroom fixtures were too high. A wheelchair ramp was behind a heavy door marked "Emergency Entrance Only." And those bleachers might as well have been at the top of a rope ladder.

"When this structure opened, [Arlington County officials] said they wanted to use some of the ice time for skating and hockey for individuals with disabilities," said Sheri Denkensohn, an Arlington resident who uses a wheelchair. "And that's really nice, but no one with a disability could come and watch."

Last fall, Sheri filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. She hasn't heard back from Justice, but when I checked with Arlington officials, I was told the problems are being fixed one by one.

It made me wonder how such a mistake could be made in the first place. Wouldn't you look at a drawing or a blueprint and ask yourself: Okay, now where are the wheelchairs going to go? Doesn't the ADA mandate that public recreational buildings of a certain size provide wheelchair seating?

"That is the law and that is the expectation, but very little gets built that is fully compliant," lamented Rosemary Ciotti, a new member of the Arlington County planning board. (Don't blame her. She joined the board after the ice rink was constructed.)

Rosemary uses a wheelchair herself and said that banks are notorious for being poorly accessible. So are drugstores, which put their pharmacists up high.

She's annoyed by the goof -- "It's a $45 million project that didn't even get the bathrooms right!" -- and wants the bleacher problem corrected soon. She wants so-called integrated seating, where wheelchair users can sit next to the able-bodied and not be stuck in what she called a "wheelchair ghetto." Chris Zimmerman, the Arlington County Board chairman, is also pressing for repairs.

No problem, said the center's architect, William Drury of Reston-based Architecture Inc.: "Our absolute intent is everything will be picked up to satisfy the requirements of the accessibility code." The bathrooms and doors are fixed already. All that remains are the bleachers.

So what went wrong? Tom Newman of Arlington Economic Development said changes in the design midway through the process complicated matters. A room at the mezzanine level between the iceplex's two rinks was enlarged for use by an arts group. That swallowed up space at the top of the bleachers where wheelchairs would have fit. When the arts group dropped out of the project, the wheelchairs were sort of forgotten.

"When the rink opened, everybody goes, 'Oh God, what do we do now?' " Tom said.

What they're doing now is getting ready to replace some of the top bleacher seats with a platform that has room for wheelchairs.

Tom estimated the cost would be $30,000 to $35,000. Who will foot the bill? "We haven't even figured it out yet," he said. "We'll get the fix done and worry about it later." (That should be fun to watch, as the architect, the contractor and the county duke it out to assign blame.)

Here's hoping the bleachers are fixed by March 11, when USA Disabled Hockey, National Rehabilitation Hospital and the United Spinal Association host a sled hockey clinic there. Or by April 18, when special hockey teams from Canada, Great Britain and the United States compete.

And my advice to architects? Put the letters "ADA" on a Post-It note and stick it on your pencil case.

Join me tomorrow at 1 p.m. for my online chat. Go to

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