Jonathan Gentry and Mark Rakes liked the idea of getting married in front of James Buchanan.
That’s how the couple ended up on the lower level of Meridian Hill Park on a recent Saturday, wearing suits. As about 40 of their guests looked on, the two men stood in front of a bronze statue of the country’s 15th president — and let’s be real, probably the first gay one — and said their vows.
Everything seemed perfect. The weather: The rain from the day before had stopped. The decorations: Two silver balloons in the shape of the couple’s initials floated alongside a red helium-filled heart. The graffiti even: On the bottom of the memorial, written in pink chalk was a haiku.
every heart does mend,
when broken from a lover,
in the spring of year
But not all their guests got to see that. After the ceremony, the couple realized that one man who had come to celebrate their wedding didn’t make it to that part of the park — not because he didn’t want to, but because he couldn’t.
He was in a wheelchair, and the park, the couple learned that day, is not fully accessible.
“It was very disheartening,” Rakes said. “He is a really close friend.”
“We felt terrible,” Gentry said.
Both men said it didn’t occur to them to check if the park had ramps that could accommodate a wheelchair.
The truth is that it probably wouldn’t have occurred to most people. It’s a park in the middle of the nation’s capital overseen by the federal government. It’s understandable that someone would assume the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990, would have made sure it wasn’t off limits to anyone by now.
“It’s 2019,” Gentry said. “How many years has the ADA been in effect?”
Most of us go through our days without thinking much about the ADA and how structures are built around us. Unless we are in a wheelchair and have to calculate each outing, we have the luxury of not thinking about door spans and restroom accommodations. We don’t have to blink at broken sidewalks because they aren’t barriers to us.
But when we are confronted with a situation in which someone has been left out for no other reason than their disability, it’s only right to stop, reflect on our shared spaces and consider who gets to use them — and, more importantly, who doesn’t.
What happened at that wedding is just one example of what many among us face all the time at unexpected moments.
It is also a reminder of why it’s important to keep the pressure on government and private entities to make public places accessible to all.
“The sort of run-of-the mill storefronts, restaurants, retail store, those really should be accessible now, and a lot are but too many still are not,” said Kenneth Shiotani, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, which is based in Washington, D.C.
He said outdoor spaces, such as beaches and trails, pose more challenges than man-made structures when it comes to accessibility and for that reason, new guidelines were set for them in 2013. But Meridian Hill Park, which boasts of having the largest cascading fountain in the country, seems much more structured than other outdoor spaces, he said.
“I think the wedding party had reasonable expectations that 30 years later [after the ADA was passed] a federal park would be accessible,” Shiotani said. “It’s a public park, it’s paid for by public dollars, it should ultimately be accessible for everybody.”
An official with the National Park Service, in an email response to an inquiry I sent, said the upper level of the park is currently wheelchair accessible. She also said this about plans: “Additionally, we are in the process of completing construction documents for the next phases of rehabilitation of the park. During this project, we’ll be adding an accessible route into the lower plaza level of the park. Once completed, this will allow complete access of that portion of the park to all. In addition, access will be available to the plaza area in front of the Presidential Memorial to President James Buchanan. We don’t have a completion date yet but construction is anticipated to start sometime in 2020.”
Rakes said his friend left that day frustrated and went home instead of attending the reception, which was held at the Kimpton Carlyle, afterward. I asked him if his friend would want to speak about his experience, and Rakes said he wouldn’t.
Another wedding guest, Ronald Keeney, described the effort that was made to try to get him to the ceremony.
Keeney said he didn’t know the man before they arrived at the park about the same time with their partners. Together, they began looking for the location of the wedding. After they realized it was on the lower level, Keeney said he went to look for a ramp but found only a “shoddy” one being used for construction that covered maybe two stairs.
He knew there was no way to get anybody safely across it, so he offered something else: He told the man he could find a few people at the wedding to help lift the chair down the stairs.
“I felt very awkward having to ask this person if he was willing to be carried,” Keeney said. But there was no other option. “It’s just not worth it,” Keeney recalled the man and his partner telling him.
By then, the ceremony had started.
“It was a terrible situation,” Keeney said. “I felt horrible that they were disappointed. I felt horrible there was nothing in that park that would accommodate him.”
Afterward, Keeney said he was left thinking about that man, but also about how this was just “one little event” — how there would probably be others who would show up to this “beautiful park and find they couldn’t get in.”