December 16, 1997 in Features

Uneasy Access Basketball Outing Suggests We Haven’t Made Much Progress In Improving Wheelchair Access

John Diaz San Francisco Chronicle
 

My brother-in-law does not regard himself as an activist. He’s just active. At 47, he skydives, he snow skis, he scuba dives and he travels extensively for work and for play.

His wheelchair goes with him everywhere.

He rarely goes to protest rallies, despite his strong views about accessibility. He’s too busy. His preferred tactic for advancing the disabled-rights cause is to do what he wants to do and thus force the travel and recreation industries to tend to their business of accommodating customers.

His recent visit to the Bay Area helped remind me that the cause involves a lot more than constructing ramps, lifts and elevators to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. Physical barriers are only part of the equation.

One of his interests is professional sports, and sampling stadiums, which brought us to the rebuilt Oakland Coliseum Arena for the Warriors-Pistons NBA game.

In deciding how we should go, I ruled out BART because I had seen the reports that so many elevators were out of service, and many of those that worked also double as restrooms for the uncivilized.

I was willing to drive, but the designers of my Jeep Grand Cherokee came a few inches short of taking his needs into account, as we discovered recently when he struggled to pull himself into the front passenger’s seat.

So we took his rental car. He knew my brick front steps were a hassle, so he honked upon his arrival, and brought along a newspaper in case my 7-year-old and I needed an couple of extra minutes to get ready. We did. He didn’t complain.

The Coliseum parking lot has precious few disabled spots next to the arena, but we got one. He had ample space to maneuver into his chair. There was another such spot right next to us. A pickup truck pulled up. The driver clicked off the headlights, hooked a disabled tag on his rearview mirror, and he and his passenger parted for the arena at a brisk pace.

A chain-link strand - about 3 feet high, looped between the poles - detoured us about 50 feet. No problem, we were early.

Once inside the arena, there were no signs showing how to get to the disabled sections on the upper level. We had to keep asking the folks in blue or yellow “Event Staff” windbreakers. Some pointed left, some pointed right; some were rude, some were friendly; some were in elevators we were told were for “staff only” or other purposes besides getting fans who needed them to their seats.

We nearly circled the entire gleaming new arena before we were allowed into an elevator.

Finally, we got to our section, where three able-bodied twentysomething guys with tickets for 12 rows higher had settled into the padded folding chairs. They left with slight prodding, offering no apology.

The sightlines were not bad, though they did not seem to be conceived or tested by anyone of average height in a sitting position. Or at least not by anyone who would care about having to twist and crane to see through or around two sets of guardrails.

With the way the Warriors were playing, perhaps the obstructions were for the best.

After the game, we went for the first elevator we spotted.

“You can’t come in here - staff only,” said yet another yellow jacket. “Sure we can,” I replied, with a smile and a shrug. Apparently figuring it would be easier and quicker to bring us down a level than to call security, she hit a button, and then tried to make a few seconds of small talk. She looked at my brother-in-law, and started telling him about a halftime wheelchair game she once saw at the arena, as if he would be impressed that she was so impressed and surprised by their athletic prowess.

I bristled at her patronizing tone, but did not say anything. Neither did my brother-in-law.

None of these little indignities was egregious enough to pre-empt our chatter about sports and family on the ride home. And certainly nothing occurred that would give rise to a big protest, or a legal challenge over the “accessibility” of a taxpayer-assisted $102 million arena.

Perhaps that is what disturbs me most. They were only small inconveniences, little indignities.

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