Marla Donato is a Chicago-based journalist and journalism professor who frequently writes about environmental issues.
How using a wheelchair changed my view of one of my favorite Chicago traditions.
Since I was a young child, I’ve loved sitting near the first or third baseline at Cubs games with my dad. I first visited Wrigley Field when the lineup included the legendary names of Santo, Banks, Beckert, Kessinger, and Williams. As a teenager, I rode the bus to the ballpark, and a bleacher seat and hotdog could be had for babysitting or grass-cutting money. You could practically reach out and touch the players. And everything—the bathrooms and concessions—were just a quick hop, skip, and jump away.
But now, Dad is gone, and so are my days of hopping, skipping, and jumping.
I’ve used a wheelchair for long stretches over the past two years, after multiple surgeries to repair a shattered leg and ankle. The Cubs are taking on the Pittsburgh Pirates this week in a do-or-die “wild card” chance to go on to the playoffs. But even if their season continues, I won’t be angling to go to more games. It’s too hard to navigate the ballpark in a wheelchair.
When I planned to go to a game this season, I figured it would be no big deal. After all, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’ve come a long way with accessibility issues. And since about $83 million in federal and local tax credits had been on the line during talks for the current renovation at Wrigley, I figured someone had made sure the place complied with all accessibility requirements before the gates opened. I really didn’t expect any major problems.
I assumed that, with a $575 million budget to update the park and surrounding area, upgrading accessibility would be high on the Cubs’ to-do list. Last year, the National Park Service got the organization to scale down the number and size of its large video boards as part of the negotiation deal for federal tax credits based on protected landmark status. But instead of, say, getting the elevators running by even halfway through the season, the ballpark’s brass concentrated on installing big Jumbotrons and an ear-splitting audio system by opening day.
I was thrilled to be returning to a beloved ballpark that is full of both personal and public generational memories—especially since it was a long overdue and highly anticipated first “fun” trip out in months after my latest surgery, which involved doctors re-breaking my heel. Remembering all the stairs to and from the seats and restrooms, I called ahead to discuss my needs in a wheelchair. Getting to the restroom in this century-old ballpark usually involves steps or ramps, which I could not navigate in a wheelchair on my own. With the elevators out of commission, I needed to be as close to the facilities as possible. (Ideally, ones that weren’t porta-potties.)
No problem, the fan line employee told me, when I noticed that the tickets we’d been issued weren’t in a designated accessible area. Just go to the box office and swap out the tickets. Most likely, we’d even wind up in a better location.
There was no talk of extra charges. So imagine our surprise when we arrived at the box office to find that we needed to come up with an extra 60 bucks to be on the same level as a bathroom. We’d already dropped $80 on a pair of tickets. But our new seats, close to a restroom, were considered an upgrade.
It’s not so simple for someone in a wheelchair to use most of those restrooms. You wait for the usher to find someone to help you. You’re jostled around on ramps. You can’t stand without bracing yourself, so a stranger helps you pull your pants up and down. More ramps back. Meanwhile, you’ve missed a couple innings.
We refused to pay extra and were handed tickets that each said “accessible seat.” We went inside.
That’s when we discovered the elevators were out of service. My husband and a young, strong usher struggled together to push me (an average-weight woman) up the long series of ramps to our assigned area. The accessible section amounted to planting my wheelchair behind the last row of installed seats at the very top of the Terrace Reserved section. A dinky folding chair would be provided for my husband. A few other people in wheelchairs were already in position.
Were we all actually expected to sit completely in the main aisle and become an obstacle course for drunken fans on hotdog and beer runs? Wasn’t that a fire code hazard? An emergency exit violation?
Apparently not. Cubs spokesman Julian Green told me later that our assigned seating was perfectly legal. Sitting completely out in a main aisle without any protective barriers? It’s a go, if the aisle is considered wide enough.
I fought back tears of frustration. I was already in pain because the Cubs’ motorized cart from the accessible parking lot had dropped us off a block short of the box office and in front of a sidewalk blocked by construction. We had to cross bumpy Clark Street twice, while people, cars, and buses poured into the area. From my seat in my wheelchair, even small ruts can send shockwaves of pain from my heel to my hip.
Due to the bumpy ride, my now-throbbing elevated leg was sticking out and at the mercy of a rowdy baseball crowd that was growing as the ramps were filling with ascending fans. I felt trapped. I couldn’t even roll myself away.
When it comes to making accommodations for people with mobility impairments, there are a lot of gray areas, even after the ADA. It tends to be easier to get around newer parks, built after 1993, which are held to different standards. And there are some allowances for “alternative standards,” such as the steepness of ramps for “historic properties.” Those are ones “eligible for listing in the National Register or Historic Places, or properties designated as historic under State or local law.” A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees compliance with the federal act, pointed me towards regulations that, upon closer examination, showed potential cracks. For instance, the law stipulates that elevator repairs “must be made as quickly as possible,” but does not specify how quickly. And ramps are okay in the meantime.
Green confirmed that there aren’t any plans to improve the disability-parking situation by moving it to closer to the “immediate vicinity of the park.” True, the ballpark is squeezed in an old neighborhood with lots of buildings, but the Cubs are erecting new clubhouses and offices right next to Wrigley on Clark Street. A new hotel is planned directly across the street.
By the time the game started, thanks to some kind ushers, my husband and I were in a roped-off area on an upper deck behind home plate. Wheelchairs were scattered among the single row of installed seats. We were even close to a single-user, accessible restroom. And Wrigley Field, getting this right, had an usher guard this restroom with a key.
Mindful of the challenges of navigating the wheelchair in the crush of the crowds on all those the ramps, we left early. We missed the Cubs’ ninth inning fall from grace and then the team’s tenth inning game-winning home run.
Now I’ve added stadiums to my list of fun things I took for granted before I had to navigate them this way. I miss the decades when I used Wrigley Field’s charm as an escape hatch from the frantic, fast-changing world outside its ivy-covered walls.