At the Old Ballgame

Accessible ballpark design has come a long way in the last several years and continues to get better.

There’s no doubt what Gary Gesme, 68, gravitates to when he’s looking for seating at Major League Baseball (MLB) parks; it’s all about parking.

During his junior year in high school in Mason City, Iowa, Gesme was a passenger in a serious car accident. He suffered a broken back, a T-12 injury and has used a wheelchair since.

He and his wife still travel to baseball games, but the Genesso, Ill., native doesn’t venture out to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Chicago Cubs because the stadium doesn’t meet his standards. There’s no parking nearby and trying to maneuver inside is difficult, too.

Instead, he and his wife will make a three-hour drive to Milwaukee’s Miller Park and stay in the city to take in a three-game series against the Cubs because the stadium has better accommodations.

“The parking [in Milwaukee] is all one major parking area. It’s just a huge area. And the handicapped parking is up close. And it’s easy for people to do tailgating and things like that, where Wrigley Field is exactly the opposite,” says Gesme, who has traveled to a handful of stadiums, including Atlanta’s Turner Field, Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis and some spring training games in Arizona. “It’s pieces all over and there’s no tailgating to speak of.”

While Gesme has had issues with Wrigley Field, Ron Bellows has had no problems. The 70-year-old Mesa, Ariz., resident has attended five MLB ballparks including the old Kingdome and Safeco Field in Seattle, the Metrodome, Chase Field in Phoenix and Wrigley Field. Bellows contracted polio in 1952 and walked on crutches up until seven years ago when he needed a wheelchair.

When choosing a ballpark, the first item he looks for is parking for his wheelchair-accessible van. He hasn’t had much trouble with parking close or finding accessible parking at all those stadiums. Parking is most important on his list, followed by seats, as well as restroom location and access.

“It’s a different accessible level when you’re on crutches versus in a wheelchair,” Bellows says. “Your needs are greater in a chair of course than they are ambulatory.”

ADA Provided a Change

Enacted in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires new stadiums to be accessible to people with disabilities. This made for stricter guidelines.

New stadiums must now have wheelchair spaces at least 33 inches wide and 4- to 5-feet deep, depending on whether you arrive at the front, side or rear, and it must include three more feet behind for movement. Parking, restroom, service counter and water fountain accessibility protocols were also added.

“The guidelines are clear. With every wheelchair seat, except the ones in the suites, you have to provide sightlines over standing spectators,” says Kevin McGuire, chairman and CEO of McGuire Associates in Massachusetts and an advocate for improving access for wheelchair users. “When someone non-disabled is sitting in front of you, when they stand up, you need to be able to see over their shoulder over row one and over their head over row two.”

Arizona Diamondbacks ADA Coordinator Nanette Bowles acknowledges everyone wants a good view. But there are other features, like parking, restroom access and ease of maneuvering around a stadium, like Chase Field, which are important, too.

She says if you can’t find accessible parking, that affects your experience from then on.

“A saying my former supervisor (Michele Stokes) had was the three P’s: park, pee and play,” Bowles says. “You have to be able to park. You have to be able to go to the bathroom and you have to be able to play, which is participate and enjoy the program whatever that may be.”

Taking Shape

McGuire has watched the changes occur during the past 20-plus years.

Hit by a drunk driver when he was 7 years old, McGuire was left paralyzed from the neck down in 1968. He later regained some feeling above the waist. He grew up in an era where accessibility was difficult. Schools, stadiums, etc. were tough to navigate.

That includes the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium, where he saw games, but had to sit at the end of the horseshoe, and Madison Square Garden, where his father had to literally pick him up and put him in a seat to watch a basketball game. There was no location for a wheelchair user.

McGuire even remembers attending his first rock concert — Earth, Wind and Fire — at the Providence Civic Center (now the Dunkin’ Donuts Center) in Rhode Island during his freshman year as an undergraduate at Boston University in the 1970s.

He went with four or five friends and they had floor seats. But McGuire wasn’t allowed to sit on the floor. Organizers wouldn’t let him.

“I was completely separated from my buddies. [The organizers] left me at the back of the building with other people that I had no idea who they were. They were other wheelchair users. But the people I was sitting with, it was like a group home of people with severe cognitive disabilities. They had no idea what they were doing,” says McGuire, who graduated from Boston University and Georgetown University Law Center. “I was a paying customer doing a floor seat but I wasn’t allowed to sit there and wasn’t allowed to be with my friends. That’s changed.”

It’s what made him become a major advocate for improving access.

McGuire has been a consultant on about 75 ballparks and stadiums and worked with architects on improving MLB’s Citizens Bank Ballpark (Philadelphia Phillies), Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Tampa Bay Rays), AT&T Park in San Francisco (Giants), Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas and Safeco Field in Seattle (Mariners), just to name a few. He’s also helping architects with the new Wrigley Field renovation.

Seat Dispersion

McGuire pushes architects for more horizontal dispersion. He thinks architects should count the number of fixed seats from home to first base, first base to right field, home to third base and third base to left field and then configure how many wheelchair seats and companion seats are needed to proportionally distribute vertical and horizontal seats. McGuire acknowledges wheelchair seats are often pushed out into the field.

His favorite stadiums include TD Ameritrade Ballpark in Omaha, Neb., which hosts the College World Series, along with AT&T Park and San Diego’s Petco Park. TD Ameritrade Ballpark is in its third season. It provides companion seating at every price level for wheelchair users.

“The vertical wheelchair dispersion is great there,” McGuire says. “It’s universally designed.”

Time for Chase

Arizona’s Chase Field also comes highly recommended because of it’s evenly dispersed seating. According to Bowles, the stadium has 944 total accessible seats, which includes a combination of wheelchair and companion seats.

Built in 1998, there’s accessible seating at the top of every main concourse area, behind home plate and next to each dugout. Accessible seating is provided in all suites, on the suite level and throughout the concourse.

“Guests with disbilites also want to make sure that they have an area where they can sit and they have plenty of space to get in and out, that they don’t have to compromise a good view to have accessible seating and they don’t here because we have such great seating,” Bowles says.

Chase Field also has more than the required number of accessible parking spaces and all are van accessible so wheelchair users have additional space to do a transfer or get out of their vehicle. Parking is on a first-come, first-serve basis, but the ballpark is surrounded by parking lots on each side.

“It’s amazing the difference in the inclusiveness of accessible seating when it’s built into the design the way it’s supposed to be,” Bowles says. “And that’s something I love about this ballpark — is it was truly designed with inclusivity in mind.”

With the newer stadiums and ballparks, inclusivity is the way to go. And McGuire thinks they’re starting to give wheelchair users more choices, which is a good thing.

“You didn’t have choices [back then]. You sat where you were told to sit,” McGuire says. “… People need to have choices. Seats for people with disabilities are about choices. You’ve got to let people sit at the finish line, sit at midcourt at a tennis tournament. That’s what you’ve got to let them do. You let people decide where they sit at what price. You do have choices now. You do have program choices, which you didn’t have before.”


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