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It may sound silly, but as Americans continue to drive less, issues like this one are going to keep coming up.

The other night, Scott Crawford, a resident of Jackson, Mississippi, went to see a performance of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. Afterward, he was hungry, and he decided to stop in at his local Burger King to grab a bite to eat.

But Crawford, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around because he has severe multiple sclerosis, wasn’t able to make a purchase, because he wasn’t traveling in a car.

The lobby of the Burger King in the city’s Fondren neighborhood was closed, Crawford says, so he went around to the drive-thru area, which was still open, first stopping at the menu board with a microphone where people place orders. When no one responded to him there, he proceeded to the pickup window. It was there, he says, that he ran into a figurative roadblock. He detailed what happened next in a letter that he sent to Burger King Worldwide’s headquarters in Miami:

I said, “Hi, I’d like to place an order.” The lady told me they can't serve me. I asked her to ask the manager, to see if they’d make an exception. She walked away and came back to say the manager said “no”. They said it was policy not to serve “walk ups”.

I’m aware that people in wheelchairs or those that cannot drive are routinely refused service at many drive-through windows. People against it cite the danger to the pedestrian and others claim that pedestrians pose a risk to the employees inside the building (crime). I find neither of those excuses at all compelling. Refusing to serve pedestrians when the lobby is closed but the restaurant is still serving others (those privileged enough to own and operate automobiles and motorcycles) is frankly discriminatory, and violates the principle of "Reasonable Accommodation" called for in the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Crawford says that the initial explanations he's received from representatives of the Burger King franchisee include concerns for the safety of the wheelchair user and an increased risk of armed robbery from pedestrian customers. A representative for the company that manages the Jackson Burger King told me that the person who could answer questions about the policy would be out until at least the end of the week.

This isn’t the first time Crawford has pressed for better accommodation for people who use wheelchairs. Back in 2008, he and fellow plaintiffs filed a suit against Jackson’s transit system, JATRAN, for failure to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The action resulted in a consent decree that, among other things, requires the city to improve maintenance of the wheelchair lifts on its buses and to train personnel in assisting passengers with disabilities.

But Crawford says that when it comes to being treated like a full citizen in his city, whether by businesses or government, it’s not only people in wheelchairs who are marginalized and excluded. Pretty much anyone in Jackson who doesn’t travel by car, says Crawford, exists in a parallel universe, one where the sidewalks are broken or nonexistent and the wheelchair-accessible entrance, when it exists, is often around the back and difficult to reach if you don’t arrive by car. “We live in a very autocentric society,” he says. While wheelchair users can get some sympathy, he says, people who don’t drive because of invisible disabilities – or by choice – don’t receive that consideration.

“I have lots of friends that walk,” says Crawford. “Some walk because they have cognitive impairment or mental illness. And I have some friends that walk just because they like to be healthy.” Those people, says Crawford, are in effect treated like second-class citizens by businesses that essentially require a person to be inside a motor vehicle in order to get served.

“It seems deeply unjust to say, we are going to be open for some customers and not for other customers,” says Crawford. “Those who are privileged to own and drive cars often aren’t sensitive to these issues.”

The question of who can be served at a drive-thru window keeps coming up. Back in 2009, a woman in Minnesota who also uses a motorized wheelchair was denied service at a White Castle that advertised 24-hour service, but closed its dining room at 11 p.m., effectively shutting out any customer who didn’t come equipped with a motor vehicle “authorized to drive on streets and highways,” according to company policy. And cases in which bicyclists challenge policies prohibiting them from using drive-thrus are increasingly common. A father in the United Kingdom who tried to buy his son a Happy Meal at a drive-up McDonald’s window last summer while riding a bicycle said this to the Daily Mail about the policy that denied him service: ‘I was baffled. If my bike is safe enough for the road, surely it is safe enough for a drive-thru in a car park with a 5mph limit? It’s a daft policy.”

There may indeed be legitimate concerns about the safety of people who walk up to drive-through windows, or who roll up in wheelchairs. But the experience of Crawford and others underlines how we've built a physical landscape that often does not acknowledge the existence of people who don't always drive. This means a real and painful lack of autonomy for all sorts of people: not only the disabled, but also kids too young to drive themselves, older people who may have age-related vision or other problems that make driving unsafe, people who can’t afford to own cars, and many others.

Even if you are equipped with a valid driver’s license and a reliable vehicle today, that could change at any time because of illness, or injury, or financial circumstance. Look around and ask yourself: If I couldn’t drive, would I still be considered a fully participating member of the society I live in? And if not, what does that mean about the society?

Top image: Sergey Yechikov / Shutterstock.com

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