Alison Battaglia eases her Mercedes into a parking spot in front of fire food and drink in Shaker Square and swings open the door. She is wearing form-fitting black pants with leather accents, a leather jacket, and shoes that conclude in dangerous-looking points at the toe—Road Warrior meets Sex and the City. Her hair and makeup are tastefully put together, and probably expensive.
As she makes her way out of the vehicle, the teenaged valet regards her with casual disinterest. Which is actually perfect, because it means he’s treating her like any other customer out on a mild, sleepy Tuesday night one week into spring. He pays scant attention as she slowly lifts one leg at a time with her hands and shifts her feet onto the pavement. He’s in no hurry, and he drifts as she pivots and, with muscular arms, grabs two bike-like wheels and a seat, and assembles them into her wheelchair, into which she thrusts herself. He is indifferent that Battaglia showed up in a wheelchair—he just wants to park her car.
Some people seem to mind that Battaglia is in a wheelchair. Like when she shows up in a fancy car. Some are surprised that she seeks and finds glamour, and that she has an active social life. She is fully aware that her access to resources makes navigating the world as a physically challenged person easier than those without the resources, but part of that ease is simply from living a long time in the same town and getting to know its ins and outs. And she’s blessed with a petite body that allows her to have the narrowest adult wheelchair available.
But whatever her privileges, she was in a car accident when she was 16 years old that left her paralyzed from the chest down. She will not walk again despite unpleasant and unfruitful experiments to try to do so. Obstacles most people don’t notice—a slight bump in a sidewalk, a door that’s hard to open, the ignorance of others—can present very difficult challenges to her. Two decades ago, when she pulled a BMW into a parking spot for the disabled, a passerby exclaimed loudly, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
This valet’s indifference? That’s progress.
Nightlife is one of the things that society seems to think is a little too much for a disabled person to ask for. Schools and libraries and government buildings? Sure, let’s make them accessible. Offices? Of course—people have to work. But go too far beyond that, and people become a little judgmental. There are things to which society seems to think people with disabilities are not entitled, and having a good time appears to be on that list. Maybe it messes with our sympathetic impulses to see someone with a disability having a better time than we are. But Battaglia likes to have a good time, and often does. It’s just not always an easy good time.
Navigating the ADA
On the list of priorities, even the fun-loving Battaglia, whose career has been spent in public service and higher education, wouldn’t rate her nightlife above her work life. It’s more important to her that she put her newly minted PhD in management, from Case Western Reserve University, to use than it is for her to snag a good spot for happy hour. In the scheme of things, it’s not quite as important as providing access to other aspects of public life.
The government agrees. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that public accommodations such as bars and restaurants—in buildings that predate the ADA—facilitate use by people with disabilities. But there is a loophole—they don’t really have to. Elsewhere in the ADA, standards for exemption from the act’s requirements fall under two standards: “undue burden” and “undue hardship.” But for bars and restaurants, the standard is much lower. As outlined in the act, “Public accommodations are required to remove barriers only when it is “readily achievable” to do so. Readily achievable means “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.” That means that bars and restaurants simply have to say it would be too expensive to add, say, ramps, wide enough exterior and interior doorways, and support railings in restrooms.
In fact, so many Cleveland bars and restaurant fall short of adequate accommodations, it’s unfair to single out any one of them. But on a night out and about that included conversations about what works and what doesn’t, the shortcomings of even Battaglia’s favorite places are inevitably raised.
After the valet takes away her modified vehicle (the controls are on the steering column for her, but the original pedals remain operable), Battaglia rolls toward fire food and drink. Her Doberman service dog, Sophia Loren, is by her side, carrying in her mouth the strap of a purse that matches Battaglia’s lipstick. It’s only then that the slight slope of the pavement underneath her is apparent. Because she’s been here before, she already knows she must get up steam to overcome the slope, navigate the deteriorating concrete at the curb cut, and swing around the sharp corners of the parking sign, the post of which sits in the center of the dip from sidewalk to parking spot.
Once inside the restaurant, she is greeted as the regular she is. A chair disappears from one of the two low tables in the bar area, and she wheels into place. The bartender is sweet and charming, rolling with the budding excitement of a night out, as Battaglia celebrates successfully defending her dissertation the week before. She chose this spot because she knows it—knows the staff will work to make her experience seamless, knows the doorway is wide enough for her, and knows the bathrooms will work for her, with wide entrances for doors and stalls, room to maneuver, and lower sinks to wash her hands. A place to use the bathroom doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request, but for those in wheelchairs it is, often.
The ADA actually prioritizes where and when barriers should be removed—when easily accomplished, of course—and the first of these is simply for entering an establishment. According to an official explanation of the ADA, “This priority on ‘getting through the door’ recognizes that providing physical access to a facility from public sidewalks, public transportation, or parking is generally preferable to any alternative arrangements in terms of both business efficiency and the dignity of individuals with disabilities.” The second priority is that an establishment should provide its goods and services in the same place where other customers access them—in other words, a restaurant would not be able to serve disabled customers in a cordoned-off spot. The third is to make bathrooms accessible, and the fourth is to remove any additional barriers to using a facility—the example given is lowering pay phones.
Barriers of Entry
Battaglia recalls a restaurant on Larchmere that had a wheelchair ramp—and a treacherous brick pathway to get to it. Following a frightening night during which she found herself flung to the ground during a pouring rain, it’s a spot she will not return to.
She also recalls a downtown hotel restaurant that she was required to enter through the kitchen. She soon tired of arriving to dinner with her hands splattered by the bits of lettuce the wheels of her chair had picked up off the floor.
From fire food and drink, Battaglia heads toward Cedar Fairmount, where she parks at a disabled parking spot with a meter. Here she must carefully exit her car so that Sophia doesn’t stray into the traffic speeding down the curving hill. She keeps the Doberman tightly by her side, reversing the service role of protection. On the sidewalk, she cheerfully says, “Let’s see if I can reach the meter!” She can’t, at least not enough to read its instructions and restrictions.
At the East Side outpost of Barrio, which overhauled the old Mad Greek space, the servers swiftly pull away chairs and make room for Sophia in the crowded, bustling dining room. The tacos are delicious and the server even warns us off ordering too many. But a visit to the bathrooms reveals that even a freshly rebuilt space doesn’t always think through accessibility issues.
Here, Battaglia discusses the Blue Point Grille downtown, which has a portable ramp that it hauls out for her, but for which she must call ahead. “That’s okay—I’m a planner,” she says. That planning instinct has come in handy: she knows that all but one table in Michaelangelo’s in Little Italy is high—so she calls ahead to reserve the one low one.
Battaglia next wheels a couple of doors away to the Fairmount, a clubby cocktail lounge. The strain of pulling herself through the doorway shows on Battaglia’s face. But the Fairmount remains on her yes list, despite the fact that there is a small rise to get in through an outward opening door, and a pronounced threshold to overcome. She’s drawn toward what she calls “the perfect atmosphere, especially the patio.”
Once inside, the staff quickly moves tables and chairs to make room for her wheelchair and fusses over Sophia. Battaglia settles in, greets the third person of the night whom she knows, and orders a dirty martini. The strain is gone, and she is having a drink with friends. She has learned when and where to make trade-offs that seem worthwhile to her. She feels she doesn’t have a choice.
“I wanted to be integrated into the community and I had to figure it out,” she says. “Because I know I’d be unhappy if I couldn’t be an active member of the community—including a social life.”
Before she left the Fairmount, Battaglia gets a gift from Sophia: a handful of already chewed gum that Sophia has made a habit of biting off the undersides of Cleveland’s restaurant tables all over town, including some of our finer establishments.
“It’s everywhere!” she says.
And then, rising to a crescendo of comic imperiousness, adds, “Accessibility and cleanliness! Shall we, people?”