The Chicago Cubs are facing multiple lawsuits over a lack of accessibility at their century-old ballpark. In 2014, the team began a years-long renovation project that it claims was “designed to ensure the viability of the ballpark for future generations of Cubs fans, while preserving the beauty, charm and historic features fans have come to know and love.” Some fans and the U.S. Department of Justice claim that the club failed increase accessibility as part of its renovation, alleging that the changes had in fact made Wrigley Field less accessible to wheelchair users.

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.
View from wheelchair space behind home plate at Wrigley Field, August 2016.

In a federal lawsuit filed by attorney David Cerda on behalf of his son who has muscular dystrophy, Credo alleges that much of the stadium’s wheelchair accessible seating was removed during the stadium renovation. The remaining ADA accessible seating, he told the court, “is located in low visibility areas with poor angles.”

Prior to the renovations, Cerda and his son regularly attended games at Wrigley Field, where they sat behind home plate in an area previously reserved for wheelchair users. Those seats were removed by 2017. Late in the 2016 season, I had a chance to sit in that same section and remarked in my review of Wrigley Field wheelchair accessibility that it was “the closest I have been able to get to home plate” in a major league ballpark. It is a shame that those formerly accessible seats have been reclaimed for nondisabled fans.

While the Cubs’ so-called “1060 Project” updated the stadium’s infrastructure and added numerous amenities, including new premium seating areas, restaurants and bars, disabled fans have now been relegated to what Cerda argues are “the worst seats in the house.” According to reporting by the Courthouse News Service, Cerda presented photographic evidence to the court that showed accessible seating areas “behind poles or beneath visibility-blocking terrace overhangs along the first and third baselines, and in ground-level covered alcoves where viewers are separated from the field by tinted glass.”

Wrigley Field scoreboard.

In a separate complaint, federal prosecutors alleged that “Wrigley Field previously had 19 general admission wheelchair seats underneath the press box and directly behind home plate, but the Cubs eliminated these wheelchair seats to make room for the Catalina Club and moved them down the first and third base lines.”

“It’s a textbook failure to integrate the seats according to the ADA,” Cerda said. “Sitting behind that dark pane of glass is like watching the game on a dark television… It’s like being in a cave”.

The Cubs deny wrongdoing and, during opening arguments in the case brought by Cerda, the team’s lead attorney Donna Welch stated that “the Cubs need to provide disabled fans with [seating] choices, not the best seats in the house.” Welch claimed that the lack of ADA accessible seating areas behind home plate did not constitute an ADA violation, so long as wheelchair users still had access to a seat elsewhere.

The ADA requires that accessible seating be dispersed across a range of sections and price levels to allow disabled fans an equivalent range of choice to their nondisabled peers. Professional and collegiate sports teams have largely failed in this regard, limiting accessible seating to substandard locations with an obstructed view or in the last row of a given section. Welch’s problematic view, that disabled people are not entitled seats in the stadium’s best sections, prevents wheelchair users from enjoying an equivalent gameday experience.

This tendency to deprioritize accessible seating is not unique to the Cubs. The best seats in any stadium are rarely accessible, whether they be at the 50 yard line in a football stadium, on the glass in a hockey arena, or behind home plate in a baseball stadium. For there to be a true commitment to equal access for all fans, teams must make the first row wheelchair accessible.

The Chicago Cubs have sought to defend themselves with a morally bankrupt argument — that disabled people should have no expectation of equal access. Shame on them.

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