FARGO — One simple chair. She said that’s all she wanted.
Tammy DeSautel takes her daughter Macy Stuart to all kinds of community events. Basketball games are their favorite, because Stuart loves to watch her cousin play.
They went to see him in the Eastern Dakota Conference tournament at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, or SHAC, on the North Dakota State University campus on March 2.
DeSautel asked for a chair so she could sit next to her daughter in her wheelchair. A staff member said he’d have to ask a supervisor.
“When he came back, he told me no because it’s against their policy. If he gave me a chair, they’d have to give everybody a chair,” DeSautel said.
She believes that action violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — landmark civil rights legislation passed in 1990, and updated in 2009, that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
Nate Aalgaard, executive director of the Freedom Resource Center for Independent Living in Fargo, said misconceptions about the ADA still exist. “It’s about equal participation. So was that equal? No, definitely not,” Aalgaard said, in reference to DeSautel’s experience.
Jerry Christiansen, an accessibility specialist for the center, said an "active investigation" was underway in the U.S. Attorney’s Office related to wheelchair seating and other features of the SHAC, prior to this incident.
However, a representative in the U.S. Attorney’s Office couldn’t confirm that. They said while the office enforces ADA law, they are unable to comment on individual matters.
Christiansen is upset with how DeSautel was treated.
“There is no excuse for this type of service,” he said.
A chair offered, with 20 seconds left
Stuart, 25, has cerebral palsy and needs someone next to her at all times. DeSautel ended up sitting on the edge of the metal bleachers during the game in order to get as close to her daughter as possible, both to help her and enjoy the game with her.
She said a staff member finally brought her a chair when only 20 seconds of the game remained.
“I was like, are you kidding me? It’s a little late for that,” DeSautel said.
The experience prompted her to write a letter to the editor at The Forum, which was published March 4.
Todd Phelps, NDSU’s deputy athletic director, said for wheelchair patrons on the floor of the SHAC, a companion can sit in the row of seats directly behind. He said it was the first time he’d heard of anyone being upset about that arrangement at the SHAC, which has been open since November 2016.
Phelps sent an apology to DeSautel and acknowledged that the staff member should have complied with the request. “It would have been and should have been very easy for us to just provide her with a chair right next to her family member,” Phelps said.
According to the ADA, a person in a wheelchair must be offered at least one companion seat, and the floor surface of it “shall be at the same elevation as the floor surface of the wheelchair space.”
DeSautel says she’s never been denied a chair in similar situations at any other facility.
Christiansen documented what he believes are ADA violations at the SHAC with the help of Keith Bjornson, a Fargo man who broke his neck as a teenager in a diving accident, making him a quadriplegic.
Bjornson died in November, at age 67. He attended several games at the SHAC and saw numerous accessibility shortcomings with it.
While upper-level wheelchair spots are close to restrooms and concessions, a metal railing gets in the way of the view of the court. When cheering fans stand up, the sight line is further obstructed.
“All you’ll see is backs and butts,” Christiansen said.
As for the power doors at the north and south entrances, Christiansen said the buttons to activate them were installed in the wrong place — right next to opening doors. Someone in a wheelchair trying to activate the button is in danger of being hit by someone else coming out of the building, he said.
Christiansen said there’s also not enough accessible parking at the SHAC, which seats 5,700 people. He believes the SHAC should have anywhere from 12 to 29 accessible parking spaces. To his count, it has 8 such spaces.
Rating the venues
Aalgaard, who also uses a wheelchair, considers many aspects when deciding whether a facility will be comfortable for him and others with disabilities.
He looks at parking, path of travel to the entrance, ease in getting to his seat and what he can see when he's there. Also, how far are the concession stands and how high are the counters? In the restrooms, can you reach the soap and paper towels?
Interaction with staff is also a big factor. Aalgaard said a confrontation with an overzealous staff member can ruin the experience in a hurry.
“You kind of want to be part of the crowd. You want to be just like anybody else. And sometimes, you don’t feel like that,” he said.
The Forum asked Aalgaard to rank the most accessible venues in the Fargo-Moorhead area. While he said he can find issues with all of them, some stand out for the steps they have taken.
He puts Newman Outdoor Field at the top for its "awesome" general admission seats, family friendly bathrooms and low counters. The newer high schools get good marks, too, as their football venues have aluminum bleachers with ramps and wheelchair spots built right in.
At Scheels Arena, there’s not a lot of wheelchair seating, he said, but there are very good sight lines. The Fargodome was built pre-ADA, in 1992, but Aalgaard said it’s made numerous accessibility improvements over the years.
DeSautel said anyone who thinks accessibility improvements go too far probably doesn’t have a disability or a family member with one.
“I feel that it’s not asking for too much. And bottom line, it’s the law,” she said.