The Night I Was Called a Fire Hazard

Fun NightlifeWay on the other side of the world, a group of 11 friends made reservations and paid for a table at a posh Mumbai nightclub. When they arrived, the staff refused entry to one person in the group, a bank employee, because he uses a wheelchair. The staff said if he wanted to go in, they’d lift him out of his chair and put him in a seat inside, leaving the chair out on the street.

The club manager said the wheelchair would take up space and might have disturbed the other guests.

Reading this brought back unpleasant memories.

I experienced a similar situation five years after the ADA was passed. Seven of us were enjoying a warm summer evening in Santa Cruz, Calif., by walking (two of us where wheeling) from pub to pub along a popular street. When we arrived at our final destination, around 1 a.m., the place was packed. We made it to the front of the line and the bouncer let in five of our group — the ones who walked — and held back both of us wheelchair users. He said, “I can’t let you in, the place is packed and you are a fire hazard.” We thought that meant he couldn’t let us in until more people left. So we waited. A few people left, and he let in the people waiting behind us.

More than slightly inebriated, we didn’t understand — this was Santa Cruz which is sort of like Berkley with surf. We said, “wait a minute, why you are letting other people in but not us?” He answered we were fire hazards and hard for others to move around. “That’s bullshit,” we replied. “Get the manager right now!”

At this point the rest of our group figured out what was happening and made their way back to the door. The manager came out and, although polite, held firm. “I can’t let you in,” he said. “Your wheelchairs clog up the aisles and are a fire hazard.”

Neither my buddy nor I are confrontational by nature, but this was WAY over the line and alcohol was fueling our resolve. “This is a violation of the ADA. If one more person leaves and you don’t let us in we are calling the cops. By tomorrow we will file a law suit and we will end up owning this place!!!” After a few moments of thought, the manager changed his mind, apologized, let us in and our beers were on the house.

In terms of experiencing disability discrimination first hand, I had led a charmed life in the 10-years since my T10 injury. I was still in my supercrip days, and prided myself on being able to hop curbs and go down stairs in my chair. I find it ironic that the end of a pub crawl on a Friday night provided my first direct glimpse of discrimination. It heightened my appreciation and gratitude for the ADA and the people who worked to achieve it — and it was also my first direct reminder of why we must be vigilant to protect our rights.

The story about the man in Mumbai reminded me how important our vigilance is, since many others around the world don’t have the protections we sometimes take for granted.

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  1. K. T. LePage says:

    When I was shot in 1961 I was refused entrance in almost all restraints or bars all around the Detroit area, and was always told I was a fire hazard. Now we have ramps accessible bathrooms, special parking places and Special Olympic. Shall I go on?

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