Visiting The US Open Tennis on Crutches (an ADA experiment).

3 Sep

I’m a big tennis fan: this is my 5th consecutive year going to the Open. I saw Andre Agassi as a smooth chested youngster at Wimbledon, and his 800th win in LA a few years ago.  I caught the tail end of McEnroe, and grew up on the likes of Sampras and Chang. I’ve always loved tennis.

This year I went to the US open with my girlfriend, who happens to have a broken ankle. Worried about accessibility, we called a couple of times in the weeks prior to try and reserve her a disabled access seat. I bought us a mini plan for the holiday weekend months ago, well before she broke her ankle, and we were told on each occasion that we called that we needed to come to the ticket window on the day of the event to pick up a disabled access ticket. Straightforward enough, right?

Given our mobility issues, we took a car service from Brooklyn to the USTA Tennis Center, in Flushing, Queens. Pretty much right away, the first hint of a problem: Once we got to the complex, nobody seemed to know where we needed to go. After being sent the wrong way multiple times by angry and outright unpleasant parking people (both police and private security), we made it to the ‘handicapped parking lot’ (lot H, fact fans), and waited for the shuttle that was to take us to the tennis center.

After a few minutes the bus picked us up, then dropped us off about 300 yards from the gate.  ‘Can’t we get any closer’, I asked? Negative came the reply.  As we were shuffling towards the gate, a number of sponsor cars drove past us, dropping off their passengers mere steps from the gate. One rule for the sponsors, another rule for those with mobility issues, I guess?

Once we got into the complex itself, my girlfriend sat at one of the tables in the food court and I went off to the ticket office to sort out her disabled access. My first interaction with the ticket window was, to put it mildly, unpleasant in the extreme: “All we have left is courtside for $750” snarled the heavyset short guy behind the thick glass. I pressed my point, and was angrily told to go and see somebody at another window, inside the Armstrong/Grandstand complex.  This guy, at least, had a much more pleasant manner about him. However, the news was the same: no disabled tickets available.

I asked to speak to a supervisor, and a lady who identified herself as Angela came out after 15 minutes or so. By this point my girlfriend and her broken ankle, had been on her own for around half an hour.

Angela’s attitude was closer to the first guy’s. She told me they were sold out, and that it was Labor Day Weekend, and what did I expect, and basically made me feel like an asshole for even asking. I explained that I had been told on more than one occasion to come to this window, and she flat out told me that I hadn’t. Because of course I would travel 15 miles from my home with a mobility-impaired girlfriend on the off chance that we were going to be able to get in. Logical.

After some more (totally unsympathetic), discussion she relented and told me to go and speak to a guy called Ameer, at Gate 35. Gate 35 was back at Ashe, on the other side of the complex. Ameer, she assured me, would organize us seats that didn’t involve stairs. She wrote his name down on a post-it note, together with the gate that we were to go to. I started to feel like I was part of some sort of clandestine operation, meeting Ameer under the clock at Grand Central Station. Would he be carrying a briefcase and wearing a carnation, I wondered?

We trudged over to Ashe, and surprise surprise…. Nobody knew who Ameer was. We asked three or four security people, but no go. We did, however, find a kindly soul who took pity on Joanna, who at this point was clearly in serious discomfort, and let us use the elevator up to the 4th floor of Ashe. Success, of sorts.

Once up there, we finally managed to track down Ameer, and to his credit he was the most helpful person we dealt with all day. Sympathetic and understanding, he radioed for somebody to help us, and after another 20 minutes or so, we finally managed to find some seats, though we were warned by one of the ushers that it was possible that we might end up having to move, as the ADA seats had been put on general sale. Selling them to the public is standard practice, I guess.

ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act. It says that a venue has to make reasonable accommodation for folks with disabilities It is very, very clear. More here:

A thoroughly shitty experience all round, but a really eye opening one: The lack of sympathy and total disrespect we encountered from pretty much every area at the Tennis Center was really very disappointing. Luckily for us Joanna’s mobility impairment is temporary, but we got a real insight into how people with non temporary impairments get treated. It was exhausting and humiliating.

I have two main issues with how we were treated. First of all, the phone support people should be able to give the right information. It’s not exactly rocket science, so it’s confusing to me that bad information should be given on multiple occasions.  I’m also interested in why they’re selling ADA tickets to the general public? The point of having disabled access tickets is so that you can seat people who actually need them, not so the Tennis Center can squeeze a few extra bucks out of the event. Right?

Secondly, the treatment we received on site was thoroughly unpleasant all round. With a couple of notable exceptions, the lack of any sort of compassion, sympathy or interest in my girlfriend’s wellbeing was frankly, shocking. I don’t know if this is a case of poor training for what is mostly seasonal staff, or a cultural/organizational issue, but I know that it’s not acceptable. Or that it shouldn’t be.

I understand that the US Open is a business, and that the point of the event is to make money, but I would hope that you can do that without losing sight of the fact that you’re dealing with human beings. You should be able to do business without losing your soul, and certainly without treating people with non-standard requirements as if they’re an annoyance.

Quite aside from compliance with the law and the shadiness of selling ADA tickets to the general public, there’s a human aspect to our experience at the Tennis Center yesterday that is deeply troubling. If it’s that hard for us to see the event that we paid good money for when one of us is fully mobile and able to dash around from one side of the stadium to the other trying to sort things out, then imagine how hard it would be for Joanna if she’d been on her own?  How many times do people who use wheelchairs go though the same experience?  At what point do you just decide that it’s not worth the hassle?

A hugely disappointing experience, all round.


3 Responses to “Visiting The US Open Tennis on Crutches (an ADA experiment).”

  1. DeanShaw September 4, 2012 at 5:08 am #

    As sad as this was, I can’t imagine what things were like 20-30 years ago when even the most basic handicapped accommodations weren’t available, Even things like accessible sidewalks weren’t around.

    As for your specific experience, its hard to believe, that basic human compassion could be so absent, especially at an event like this. I guess the lesson is, don’t be handicapped at the US Open, or if you are, make sure you’re a sponsor.

    • kai macmahon September 4, 2012 at 6:18 am #

      Yea, for sure. I was just pretty shocked at the whole experience to be honest. It doesn’t actually make any long term difference to us: in a few weeks Joanna will be up and walking again, but it was definitely an eye opener.

  2. Mike Barbis September 1, 2015 at 5:37 am #

    Unbelievable that the USTA didn’t even bother to reply to this … pathetic actually

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