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The Universal Notebook: Access for all is everybody's business

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Access for all is everybody's business

On the rainy evening of Oct. 30, Margie Cooper, a senior art history major at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, had reservations at an upscale Portland restaurant. It was Parents Weekend and Cooper planned to dine out with her parents.

She made the 8 p.m. reservation a month before, but when she decided to invite her roommate Emma Verrill, she called the restaurant a couple of hours ahead of time to let them know that one of her party would be in a wheelchair.

Verrill was left paralyzed after spinal surgery in 2003 when she was a Yarmouth High School student. With remarkable resilience and courage, she took to a wheelchair and carried on with her life without missing a beat. She is the first student in a wheelchair to attend Bowdoin, overcoming every obstacle thrown her way, including spending a junior semester abroad on her own in Rennes, France.

Being independent when you're in a wheelchair is never easy, but Verrill, a determined young woman, has found that with a lot of effort on her part and a little effort from others, all things are possible. Which is why she was not prepared for what she and Cooper say happened next.

Around 6:30 p.m., Cooper says, someone from the restaurant called her back and left a message that the restaurant is not handicapped accessible. Cooper didn't get that message, but says she received another call soon after. Cooper says a hostess told her the restaurant could not accommodate her reservation.

Cooper then spoke with the owner who, Cooper says, "again confirmed what the hostess had said: my guest could not be accommodated because she was in a wheelchair."

Cooper says she tried to explain that she and Verrill are college students, that they are used to negotiating obstacles, that Emma could be transferred to a chair if the wheelchair took up too much room, but she was told that the restaurant was simply too small and inaccessible for a wheelchair.

"I was shocked," Cooper says, "as I have dined with Emma in multiple locations in New York City, Portland, as well as Brunswick."

The owner insists, "We did nothing wrong on our end," saying the building has housed restaurants for years and its non-compliance with accessibility laws is grandfathered.

The owner says she did not deny access or service, she simply informed Cooper that the restaurant is very small and not handicapped accessible and left it up to them to decide whether to come or not.

That's not what Cooper heard. "She was telling us we couldn't come," she says.

If it had been left up to them, the Bowdoin women say, they would have dined there. Verrill and her friends have a lot of experience bumping her wheelchair up stairs, carrying her if necessary. Two small steps and a narrow doorway should not have presented a big problem.

The owner says it was a liability issue.

"If there's a risk of injury, who would the onus be on?" she says. "All we were worried about was her safety on a rainy night."

Verrill doesn't buy it. She says she has never been denied service anywhere, and has filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Verrill says she is not looking for compensation or penalties, just a determination of whether her rights were violated. She doesn't think what happened to her was right and she doesn't want it happening to anyone else.

The owner says she feels she is being unfairly accused, just as Verrill feels she was unfairly excluded.

Were all buildings that provide public accommodations required to be handicapped accessible, this sort of situation wouldn't arise. But, unfortunately, they are not.

"My goal is to bring an awareness that a disability doesn't make you unable. You just need to defy the obstacles," says Verrill, who recently attended a conference in Istanbul where she spoke about making international study abroad programs more accessible to students with disabilities.

"We have to have the help of able-bodied people, of restaurants, schools, churches," Verrill says. "Everybody has to be willing to help in order for this to work. My problem with this restaurant is ‘Why don't you want this to work for me?'"

As it turned out, the evening of Oct. 30 had a happy ending. Verrill, Cooper and Cooper's parents dined instead at an upscale little restaurant in Brunswick. When Cooper called ahead to ask if it was handicapped accessible, she was told it was not, but the owners said they would be happy to get a makeshift ramp from the basement to help Verrill over the three high brick stairs from the street, if necessary.

It wasn't. Verrill has never let a few stairs stop her before.

"I could not have had a better experience that night," she says.

Access is something most people take for granted. Creating access for those who cannot take it for granted is everybody's business.