I thought I knew a lot about the problems of the disabled -- especially their access to buildings and facilities. For more than a dozen years, I had worked in the field of handicapped persons' legal rights. I had given speeches and had written about architectural accessibility and the laws that require it.
But the problem never hit home until I started dating a woman who uses a wheelchair.
My friend, Jill Robinson, and I don't always run into trouble when we go out on the town. Sometimes we have been pleasantly surprised. But all too often, the entertainment has been spoiled -- because Jill has been in tears of exasperation over inaccessible facilities, or one or both of us has been smoldering over the insulting, patronizing treatment we have received.
When we go out, we certainly are not seeking difficulty, conflict and other hassles. But that's what happened the night we went to Ford's Theatre. We had planned a pleasant, romantic evening -- dinner at a nice restaurant and then a dance performance at Ford's. We agreed that I would pay for dinner and she would purchase the theater tickets.
Jill had called the box office beforehand to check on wheelchair accessibility and seat locations, and was assured that the theater has a ramp. She also was advised which seats to select.
Ascending the ramp and entering the rear foyer of the theater, we made our way to what appeared to be the box office. Jill wheeled up and requested the tickets she had reserved. She was told that this was not the box office -- that it was located three doors up the street. She asked whether there were any steps to the box office. There were -- and no ramp.
"How am I supposed to get my tickets?" Jill asked the manager. He asked whether she was alone -- implying that it was the duty of the person with her to take care of her.
The tickets were to be her treat, she said, and she wished to transact her own business. There was no way, he replied, that she could do that.
In other circumstances, she would probably have insisted the management make arrangements to bring the tickets, but it was getting close to curtain time, so I went to fetch them.
But that wasn't the end of it. To reach our seats, located in the last row of the theater (a pillar partially obstructed the view of the stage), one had to go down some stairs. And it was not just a question of "bumping" the wheelchair down a couple of stairs to the seating level; the stairway was continuous, with no place to stop a wheelchair at any point. There was no way for Jill to get to the recommended seats -- or to any other seat in the theater.
The usher informed us that wheelchair-bound patrons sit in an alcove, separated from all the chairs. And indeed there were two of them, semicircular indentations about three feet in diameter -- recesses apparently created for the placement of statues. Jill and I were thus faced with the prospect of having to sit apart.
To make the best of a bad situation, Jill pulled her wheelchair up behind my seat. Whenever the ushers guided people to the side aisle, she backed into the alcove to let them pass. During the show's second number, however, an usher approached and told her she would have to move -- fire regulations required the aisles be kept clear.
"If there is a fire," she told the usher, "I will move."
"Why don't you just walk down the stairs to the seat?" asked the usher. Jill pointed out that if she could walk she would not be in a wheelchair.
"Can't he," the usher asked, nodding toward me, "just carry you down to your seat?" This to a woman who, in obtaining her law degree, pursuing a successful practice, writing federal regulations, achieving considerable success in athletics, and becoming an accomplished scuba diver, has consistently eschewed any hint of helplessness or dependency.
Jill told the usher that she would not be carried to her seat.
We topped off our expected evening of light-hearted entertainment by having a very unpleasant argument with the management.
Unfortunately, the problems are not limited to Ford's. The Kennedy Center is another case in point.
The outside entrances to the Kennedy Center are flat and perfectly accessible and, unlike Ford's, the box offices are easy to reach. However, the main entrances at the Opera House and other main theaters of the Kennedy Center are up flights of stairs. This problem is supposed to be remedied by side entrances to the theaters. These doors are kept locked. Apparently, when a person who uses a wheelchair seeks admittance, he or she is supposed to wheel to the bottom of the stairs at the main entrance and yell up the stairs, through the crowds of people streaming toward the doors, to plead for the attention of one of the ushers. Once an usher notices the supplicant at the bottom of the steps, a staff person is sent to unlock the side door. The person using the wheelchair must then negotiate through the crowd, out of the main corridor, around the corner to the side corridor, into a smaller vestibule, where, one hopes, the usher will by now have arrived.
There also are attitude problems. Ushers, it seems, have been trained to perform a number of rituals that insult and confound disabled patrons. They insist that they must push the wheelchair. To someone like Jill, who is extremely mobile, being pushed is an insult to her competence. Why should she, who is an expert at moving her wheelchair around, sit passively while an usher, who knows little or nothing about rolling a wheelchair, pushes her? And the ushers do not simply make an offer to help push; they insist -- "rules," they say.
Upon arriving at the seats, they perform another invasive ritual -- they set the handbrakes on the wheelchair. The first time an usher reached over and set her brakes, my date was incensed. She knows perfectly well how to watch out for her own safety, and does not need a paternalistic usher to decide when to immobilize her wheels.
For reasons of comfort and camaraderie, Jill prefers to transfer from her wheelchair to a regular seat. But if you purchase tickets for regular aisle seats at the Kennedy Center, you run into the next usher ritual -- "I'll have to take your wheelchair away." Most modern wheelchairs can fold up quickly to 11 or 12 inches wide, and can sit beside the theater seat without obstructing the aisle. The ushers, nonetheless, proclaim that "the aisles must be kept clear." Psychologically and practically, removal of the wheelchair means the removal of mobility.
When we have objected, pointing out that even with the folded-up wheelchair sitting beside us the aisle is still wider there than it is at several other places on the same aisleway, we have been told that fire regulations require that the wheelchair be removed. But in the event of a fire, I think that my date would be safer in her wheelchair, moving swiftly and smoothly toward the exit, rather than crawling along the carpet beneath the surging crowds trying to get to her wheelchair. Nor do I really believe that an angelic usher would rush back into the smoke, fighting his way against the panicking throng, to bring the wheelchair back to her.
Structural barriers and adverse practices victimize not only individuals with disabilities, but also their friends, relatives, and dates. Because I date a woman who uses a wheelchair, I have been discriminated against. I have been unable to take my friend to events at some facilities. I have been denied the opportunity to sit in sections I might prefer. I have been forced to leave performances early, because she could not get to the toilet facilities. I have had my evenings clouded by the unpleasant and insulting conduct of managers and ushers. At Ford's, I have even been told that I cannot sit next to my date.
Real accessibility is not so hard to achieve. The same week we went to Ford's, we attended a ballet performance at another very old building, the Warner Theater. We had no problems getting good seats and we were treated courteously. We have gone to performances at several other Washington theaters and clubs and found the accommodations to be reasonably accessible.
That ought to be the rule, rather than the exception.