Wheelchairs Welcome? Not Everywhere.

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Fay Vincent, The Wall Street Journal, "Where The Disabled Aren't Welcome"

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent describes incidences of clubs, offices and public spaces posing obstacles for him and his wheelchair. He joins NPR's John Donvan to discuss the places where those in wheelchairs still don't feel welcome.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Now, the Opinion Page. Fay Vincent tells a story in a recent op-ed. He once asked the CEO of a major hotel chain why wasn't there more attention paid to the handicapped traveler. The response he got was this: There aren't many people like you who visit top-level hotels. It doesn't make business sense. Vincent goes on in a piece that ran in The Wall Street Journal to describe private clubs, medical offices and public spaces that continue to pose obstacles for people like him, people in wheelchairs, places where still he basically doesn't feel welcome.

If you use a wheelchair, where is it still hard for you to navigate? Where can't you go? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Fay Vincent is the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, and he joins us by phone from his home in Connecticut.

Fay Vincent, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

FAY VINCENT: Thank you very much, John. I'm glad to be with you.

DONVAN: So you start your piece in The Wall Street Journal with another story. You were asked to speak at a private Manhattan men's club, and before you could say, yes, I'll be there, you had to ask a simple question. Tell us what happened.

VINCENT: Well, I was in a wheelchair, and I interviewed with the speakers' committee. We agreed I would be a speaker. And then I said, look, I'm in a wheelchair. Is there a bathroom in this club that I'll be able to use that evening? And the other gentleman there, somewhat embarrassed, said, no, there is no such bathroom, and it wouldn't be possible for you to use the regular bathroom.

So I said I don't think I can speak, then, and I'm sorry, because I'd like to do it. Then, very graciously, they said, look, give us a little time. They called back in a week and said, we're going to change the facilities, and we'll fix one up for you. And they have done so, and I will give the talk later in September. But it's an example of probably(ph) decent people. Their club is not under the prescription of the Americans - the ADA Act, the statute in favor of Americans with disability. And it's not a particularly edifying story.

DONVAN: But at least the bathroom is there now for anybody who comes after you.

VINCENT: That's true.

DONVAN: So it's interesting. As you talk about this, you mentioned the ADA Act, which has been enforced for nearly 20 years now, and requires that access be provided for people with disabilities - particularly, as I understand it, any government installation has to install it, and any new business has to include it. But I'm assuming that this club was grandfathered in because it was an old, musty place.

VINCENT: Oh, at least a hundred - yeah, probably a 150-year-old club.

DONVAN: So how many - how much of that is there out there, places you can't get into?

VINCENT: Well, you know, it doesn't matter. I went to one of the biggest hotels in New York, and they showed me a room. They said it was handicap sensitive. It turned out not to be. When I complained, they said, well, we're sorry, but the real handicap room in this hotel is busy because the people who were there overstayed a day, and so we had to put you into one that isn't quite as good.

I went to a major hospital here in New York. And although it's ADA compliant, if you think about it, wheelchairs are very hard to make - they can't make hard, right angles. So they have a turning access that's quite wide. And a number of places in this hospital, I really couldn't get through the door into the particular facility because it was a hard right angle, 90 degrees, and my wheelchair just wouldn't accommodate that angle.

DONVAN: So what happened?

VINCENT: Well, the fellow who was pushing me had to just lift up the back of the chair and pivot it as if it were on its toes and swing me around. It was not very pleasant. I'm a big guy. It was good that he was very strong.

I went to another hospital, and I was going to have a bone density test. The wheelchair wouldn't fit in between the wall and the table on which the X-ray procedure was to be performed. Once again, it's ADA-compliant, I suspect, but whoever put the table in there, it's impossible to get a wheelchair next to the table.

DONVAN: Fay, how mad do you get? I mean, how mad do you let them see you get in these situations? You know, and what I'm thinking is, everything is very - you know, you described the situation in the men's club, and everything was very civil and polite up to that point. And then they tell you that you can't go in their club. And from the sound of it, you were polite, and they were polite. Is polite how you always handle it?

VINCENT: Well, it doesn't do - look, I've learned, you know, if you bay at the moon, what good does it do? I've learned that most people are well intentioned. It's not their fault. Usually the system in many places simply is insensitive.

The worst story was when I was doing a book for Simon & Schuster. I went to their lobby. I was on canes at that point. I go into the lobby. I go up to the back of it. There are two security guards there, and I say I'm to meet somebody on a - in the building, and they say, well, he's not in now, you'll have to wait.

I look around. There are no chairs. The lobby is totally bereft of chairs because, they explain to me, the homeless come in there, and they don't have any chairs or couches because they don't want the homeless camping out there. So I'm stuck on canes.

I said to the two guards, look, what am I going to do? They said, well, you're here early. That's your fault. It's your problem. I said, are you kidding me? It's my problem? I said, what am I going to do? I can't stand here. I'll fall down. I said, could you take me up there and help me? No, we can't do that. I said, why? It's against the rules. So I left.

I called the city, and because of baseball they knew who I was. They were very sensitive, and they started a procedure, and I'm sure the guys in the building were - their sensitivity was upgraded.

DONVAN: You mean they had a little talk afterwards.

VINCENT: But to your point, there's not much point. These guards are not very well trained, not very sensitive, not very bright, and they caused the problem. But the whole system was insensitive. And what good is it going to do for - I just - there's no point in getting angry. You just have to adjust and - now, I won't go back to Simon & Schuster. I did some books for them. But if they ask me to come back, I wouldn't come back because that lobby is - now, in a wheelchair, of course. I bring my own - my seat with me. But in those days I was really in a very vulnerable position.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Greg from Millville, New Jersey. Greg, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

GREG: Hi. It's really good to be on. I just wanted to make a quick comment because I was hearing your guest speaking, and I remember like I went to Magee Rehab in Philadelphia. And we used to do these, like, day outing things, in which right before you get out, you know, you'd go around the city on your wheelchair.

I'll preface this by saying I broke my back a year ago, and I'm paralyzed from about the knees down at this point. And you would - you know, you would go two or three streets, and you would think the curbs were ADA-accessible. You hit one, it wasn't. And I'm mobile enough where I can somewhat stand up, push my chair over or use my Lofstrands if needed.

DONVAN: Use your what? I'm sorry?

GREG: My Lofstrand, the forearm crutches.

DONVAN: Mm-hmm.

GREG: And I just found that when people say it's ADA-accessible, it often isn't. It looks like it is, but the realities of using a wheelchair or using your crutches, it's actually more discriminatory than I would say (unintelligible). I'll take the comment off the air.

DONVAN: Well, Greg, before you go off the air, can I ask you a question?

GREG: (Unintelligible)

DONVAN: Because it sounds - as I understand it, your disability is recent in your life.

GREG: Yes, yes. I had a spinal cord injury last year from a rock climbing accident.

DONVAN: Did you notice before the problem that you're talking about?

GREG: You know, I was thinking about this recently. And (technical difficulty) you kind of just walk around, and you see, you know, a one-and-a-half-inch lift, and you think that's OK. But then you get in a wheelchair, and that one-and-a-half-inch lift is the difference between having to basically, like, do a wheelie to get on top of it, or if you have certain machines, you can't do that wheelie to get on. And it - especially in the city of Philadelphia, it's really noticeable...

DONVAN: Yeah.

GREG: ...to the point you can't get around certain neighborhoods.

DONVAN: All right. Greg, thanks for your comment, and I want to let Fay Vincent respond.

VINCENT: Well, I agree. I think that when you're not handicapped, you tend not to pay much attention. And I noticed that people who travel with me, including my wife and others, become so much more alert than they were before they had to accompany me. So it is a case of you learn by bitter experience.

DONVAN: You also allude, Fay, to, in the piece, to the fact that, you know, we're an aging nation, and a lot of people who are not handicapped, have no disability now, may later on, and that it's in everybody's interest to take this seriously for that reason.

VINCENT: Well, don't you think that's correct? I think that the medical profession is keeping us alive much longer than we would have years ago. I mean you think about Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at 65, and I thought he was a very old man when he died, and I'm now 74 - the wonder drugs have done wonders. Sure, a lot of us are going to be in wheelchairs. And I think the ADA Act has made a big difference, ramps and elevators, but there's an awful lot more, and most of it is just intelligent sensitivity.

I can't tell you how many doors won't permit a wheelchair. Now, these are people who are welcoming to wheelchair people, medical facilities. But they have two glass doors and neither door will accommodate a wheelchair. You have to open both of them. Well, inevitably one of them is locked at the bottom. The person - many of them don't know how to open that door. It's never a problem. Then I come along, and the wheelchair won't go through one door, you have to get the other one open. And it can be a bloody effort to get somebody to open it.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's bring in Jamie from St. George, Utah. Hi, Jamie. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JAMIE: Yes. Can you hear me?

DONVAN: Yeah, we sure do.

JAMIE: Yes, I have - I'll explain briefly the situation. But you've been asking about do you get angry, and that's really more important, my answer to that. But as an alumni, I revisited Dixie State College in Southern Utah last week to deliver some information about how students with juvenile diabetes are eligible for disability services and accommodation. And the health center had moved, and I arranged my bus to take me to the student health center, where I was going to leave these pamphlets. It was moved four blocks off campus, up a very, very hilly incline.

The bus driver who was supposed to leave me on the street said, Jamie, you can't get up that incline; I'll drive you around to the back, and we'll see if you can get in. Well, when the little bus driver drove me around to the back door, there was no access. There were two steps on every single entrance into that building. This is an - Department of Education ADA-eligible facility, the health center.

But you're asking: Do you get angry? Lately, I have to keep quoting a Langston Hughes poem that is entitled "A Dream" - "What Happens To A Dream Deferred?" And I don't know the context that he wrote that in, but the very last line of it says, what happens to a dream deferred? It explodes. And that's the point where I'm at. When are we as disabled people going to explode?

DONVAN: Fay Vincent, that sounds very passionate, and I have a sense that you get exactly what she's talking about. What would you say? What would you say to Jamie?

VINCENT: Well, I don't think it serves any purpose. You know, it seems to me that the best thing to do is make the problem known. I think you have to retreat before you can go forward. You have to retreat, raise the issue, get people to focus on it. I think most people are really trying to treat handicapped people well. I don't think it's a mean and ugly world. It is, by and large, however, careless. We're all careless. And so how do you overcome that? I think you really just have to work at it very steadily.

DONVAN: Jamie, thanks very much for your call.

JAMIE: Thank you.

DONVAN: We have an email from Aaron. Aaron writes this: I am an architect. And he says: The pushback from project owners when it comes to handicapped accessibility issues can be frustrating. He says that everyone whose building is trying to receive a waiver from having to comply with ADA rules - he says, when I'm forced to tell them that isn't an option, then they settle for adding wheelchair access at a loading dock - huh, it just sounds like the story we just heard - or a back hallway or some other undesirable location.

ADA compliance is often not enough. As a design community, we must be sensitive to not only accessibility but the comfort and enjoyability and dignity of people with mobility issues. Let's bring in Jay from Turnersville, New Jersey. Jay, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JAY: Hi. I wanted to share an experience. By the way, your guest, Fay Vincent, is so on the money about what the real issue is, which I think is - it's not about the law at this point. It's about sensitizing people and making them aware. I'm almost 70. I've only been a wheelchair user eight years, and I've had a great deal of experience. I just want to share one with you. I'm a retired academic. Three years ago, I was giving a paper at a conference in San Francisco at a very nice hotel that had just been totally refurbished. And of course it was advertised as wheelchair accessible.

And it turned out that where they had conference papers being given was on the lower level. There was no access by elevator to that floor. And I had to be taken outside, around the corner, put on a freight elevator like a crate of oranges, lowered down into the bowels of the hotel, through the storage area, through the service kitchen to the room where I was going to present this paper.

DONVAN: And then you had to get up on the stage and be great.

JAY: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

JAY: Actually, I just sat in my chair and gave the paper. And the room itself was wonderful. It was a very accessible room for a wheelchair user. The elevator was too small for me to ride my chair in and turn it around, so I had to go in and back out, and there wasn't more than I don't think an inch of room on either side for me to back out of the elevator.

DONVAN: Jay, you've given us an image to take this show away with. We're out of time, I'm afraid, so I want to thank you very much for sharing your story with us. And I also want to thank Fay Vincent, who wrote this op-ed piece in Friday's Wall Street Journal. It's called "Where The Disabled Are Not Welcome." He joined us from his home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Thanks, Fay Vincent, very much for your time.

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