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Wheelchair Athletes Test Access

More than 550 wheelchair athletes are in Tampa for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public places have to be accessible to them. But one group of athletes from South Florida found some places are more accommodating than others. 

Shannon Buchholz traveled from Aventura with a group of athletes that included her husband Harvey, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. Shannon said she made a reservation for 10, including four people in wheelchairs and one service dog, at Bern's on Saturday night after opening ceremonies for the games. 

"They want to sit down just like the next guy having their dinner and enjoying their evening," Shannon said. "We don't ask for more than that. We want to be able to get through the door, have a meal, pay our bill, say we had a lovely evening and move on to the next day."

When they got to their table, they were a seat short. She said the waiter kept apologizing, but didn't bring another chair.

"After a few minutes I was really disgusted. My husband was upset. He said, 'Let's just leave. If you're not going to eat, I'm not going to eat,'" Shannon said.

She asked to speak to the general manager, who said there was nothing written in the reservation book that she was coming with wheelchairs and a dog.

"I said, excuse me, did you happen to notice this group? Do you think I make a habit of bringing in this many wheelchairs and a dog without adding it into my reservation?"

Rebecca Williams works with the Southeast ADA Center answering questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act. She hears all kinds of stories from people who have trouble accessing public places.

"I do get calls that say, 'How come no one's come along and made sure this restaurant is accessible?'" Williams said.  "As we like to say, there's no ADA police. There's no governmental agency that sends people out to check restaurants, check hair salons, to check the Walmarts. Those changes come either when a business understands its responsibilities for access, or somebody can't get in, and they talk with the business about why they're not accessible, or either a federal complaint or lawsuit is filed."

On Monday night, Shannon's group was looking for a restaurant that would be more accommodating to the group, including Harvey's miniature Pomeranian, Razzi, which is  specially trained to alert Harvey when he's about to have a seizure.

The group of wheelchair athletes, their coach, a spouse and another friend ended up at Jackson's Bistro, about a quarter mile from the convention center. They waited about five minutes to be seated.

"They gave us a table that had on room on all sides," Shannon said. "The dog was the issue at the beginning. But they got over it. They just need to know what the rules are."

According to Williams from the Southeast ADA Center, there are two questions restaurant employers can  ask: Is that a service animal and what does it do for you?

"Many times, such as somebody who has diabetes or seizures, it's a hidden disability," Williams said.

A business can't ask to see a certification for the animal, nor does the animal have to wear a special vest.

The general manager of Jackson's says the restaurant's owners hired a specialist a couple years ago to go through the facility and remodel to make sure everything was accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Wheelchair athlete Larry Blocher of Delray Beach said he would go there again if he comes back to Tampa.

"Easy to get around, accommodations are good, (restroom) facilities are fantastic, no problem getting in and out," Blocher said.

Shannon's husband Harvey Buchholz agrees.

"It may not be a four star restaurant, but the way we were treated, and the food was good," he said. "They get it in our book."

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Lottie Watts at 813-974-8705 (desk) or e-mail atlottiewatts@wusf.org. For more health news, visit HealthNewsFlorida.org.

Lottie Watts was our Florida Matters producer from 2012 to 2016. She also covers health and health policy for WUSF's Health News Florida .
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