It is the first day of celebrating access equality, and one of the ways to do that is through sharing our stories facing access barriers. By using the Facebook page located here https://www.facebook.com/AccessEquality, and using the Twitter hashtag #AccessEquality, I hope to create a narrative that makes people understand the barriers prevalent throughout our world, which those of us with disabilities face head on every day.
I write this knowing that I will probably be ridiculed and shamed for sharing my experiences. I have been, in the past, for speaking out. When you have a local business, they rely on the community for word of mouth advertising, and talking about a lack of wheelchair accessibility is seen as negative. However, I have never backed down, because I feel it is my duty. I am not the only person in a wheelchair that has felt excluded by The Neon, due to their wheelchair. Dayton is home to Wright State University, which is located in the suburb of Fairborn. The school has catered to people with disabilities for years, and there are many people in wheelchairs who attend the school or who settled in Dayton as alumni. Every person I spoke to who has been to The Neon felt excluded because of their wheelchair.
When I first moved back to Dayton in 2010 to attend the Wright State film program, I wanted to get involved in the community film scene. One of the easiest ways to do so was to buy tickets to the upcoming FilmDayton film festival, which was hosted at The Neon. I bought three expensive, weekend passes to the festival, but we only ended up going the first day. I felt so excluded and faced such horrible access barriers, we ate our money and did not go back for the two other days of films.
When you enter The Neon it is not very spacious, and someone in a wheelchair often feels like they are taking up room, as it is hard for others to get by, especially if there are many people in attendance. This can happen a lot of places. Unfortunately, this is actually the nicest part of The Neon experience for wheelchair users.
When I got into the theater, I was told there was space in the back. To be out of the way of patrons entering and exiting, they moved out the trash can, and had me sit in its place. You read that right. They made me sit in the place where the trash can sits. People in wheelchairs are literally replacing the trash when they sit in the back of the theater.
I attended the festival with my girlfriend and our son. She had bought us popcorn to share, but since I was back in my trash can seating ‘accommodations’ and she was a few rows ahead of me, we were not able to share anything. I was segregated from the people I was with, my family, because of my disability. Additionally, people entered the theater for the few screenings we attended, throughout the films. They would ignore me, often standing in front of me as they looked for a seat, obscuring my view of the screen, and making it impossible to see. One person couldn’t find a seat during one screening, so he stood in front of me the entire film.
As you can guess, I found the experience humiliating and mortifying. When I returned home I emailed The Neon and I explained the situation. My concerns were quickly dismissed and I was told because the building was old, they did not have the money to renovate, and makes the theater ADA compliant. The Neon is allowed to get away with this due to the grandfather clause in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Buildings built before 1990 can claim a hardship in financing renovations, which allows them exemption from having to follow the law.
I posted my thoughts and my experience on social media, and I was shamed by both members of the Dayton film community and then employees of The Neon. I was told to shut up about my experience. I was told it would hurt the community. What these individuals fail to realize is that an important part of the community, people with disabilities, are left out by the lack of accessibility. It is no “community” if a part of it is segregated from inclusion.
I returned to The Neon only once, in 2013 when my film trailer for my junior film was shown at the Wright State student film festival (which has since moved to the much more accessible Dayton Art Institute this year). I didn’t really want to go, but I wanted to see my trailer on the big screen. This time, my wheelchair, and the wheelchair of the person who was a producer on my film, were expected to sit in the very front, in front of the first row of chairs. This made seeing anything on the screen nearly impossible to see. We were so close to the screen, it obstructed our view. I had to tilt my wheelchair so far back to try and see it, I was practically in the lap of the person sitting behind me.
People with disabilities deserve reasonable accommodations. Refusing to make buildings accessible keeps a part of the community out. We feel like we do not belong if we cannot participate. Further, shaming individuals with disabilities for speaking out about access barriers adds insult to injury. We deserve to not be silenced. We need our able-bodied allies to stand with us on this. Allowing everyone to participate in events is better for the entire community. We need to call out any business, local or not, which excludes any section of the population.
I was told other people in wheelchairs did not complain, because they had friends help them out of their wheelchairs, and into “regular” chairs. Not all of us can do this, and some of my friends I spoke with who had transferred with help found the experience exhausting. We should be able to fully participate in our community, without having to leave our wheelchairs. Inclusion is about including everyone.
I will continue to speak out until businesses realize that people with disabilities deserve the same rights of inclusion, as everyone else. The grandfather clause is the worst part of the ADA. Businesses have the right to discriminate, and legally exclude people with disabilities because of it.
On this day of access equality I encourage everyone to confront the businesses in their community that lack accessibility. Everyone benefits when people with disabilities are included. We should accept nothing less.