The outer circle of the parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium is rocking. Tens of thousands of fans dressed in black jerseys howl and strut their macho best as barbecue and cigarette smoke fills the air. The NFL's bitterest rivalry is about to resume; in two hours, the Chargers take the field against the Oakland Raiders. The lot's inner circle, reserved for special permit and handicapped parking, is more subdued.
Jeremy Gilbert, 26, sits in his wheelchair grilling meat with his friend, Jeremy Knight. Friends for 15 years, they both grew up in Poway and now live in San Marcos.
"I've been a Charger fan my whole life," says Gilbert. "I don't have season tickets, but I come to a lot of the games. I went to four or five last year, and I'll go to more this year if I can get tickets. If you're handicapped, you have to come down to the stadium to buy your tickets. You can't get them through Ticketmaster. And that's not just Charger games -- it's concerts, just about anything in San Diego County. And they're hard to get because there's very limited seating here. There's, like, three or four sections. I bought these tickets last December when I got a gift certificate.
"The prices are about average for handicapped seating," Gilbert continues. "In the plaza level, it's about 45 to 48 bucks. You're elevated up in a ramped area behind everyone else. With the overhang and people standing up, it can be really hard to see the game sometimes. The restrooms are a pain. There's, like, one handicapped stall in each bathroom. Too many people who aren't handicapped just walk in and don't allow for the people who need those stalls to use them.
"Everything's ramped here -- that's a plus. And the parking is really good -- and it's not far from the gate -- which is amazing. I just wish they'd make the tickets more accessible through Ticketmaster. Maybe have a special number for disabled people only, so you're not jammed trying to get into the phone lines. For concerts and stuff it's impossible, and you have to go down to the pickup window at the Sports Arena, which is over your head. It's kind of stupid. You'd think Ticketmaster would be interested in helping us."
Gilbert's friend Jeremy chimes in. "We went to a concert earlier this year at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Riverside. We didn't even get wheelchair seats. I just pushed him in there and told the security guards, 'We're sitting right here. If you guys don't want us to sit here, you'll have to make us move.' They let us stay there. It's so hard. We try to get handicapped tickets all the time, and they never call back." Gilbert is also a Padres fan. "I don't see too much difference coming to the Padres games, except the tickets are usually a bit easier to get 'cause there's more games. The crowd is also a little more tame -- a little less intoxicated."
Joe Bravo is visiting from Alta Loma. His motorized wheelchair almost looks like a luxury scooter, with upholstered seats and fancy compartments. "I follow the Raiders when they come down to play southwest teams. We usually take our motor home, but today we brought the Suburban."
Bravo had no trouble securing tickets. "We drove down a week ago last Friday, made a day out of it, went across the border, purchased some pots, and drove back." He interrupts himself to clarify: "That's P-O-T-S!" he laughs. "But today, when I tried to get tickets for my sister, we couldn't get two seats together. I don't mean just with the handicapped section, but anywhere. This is the first football game we've ever come to here. We did have problems at the L.A. Coliseum, 'cause they sold so fast, but that was years ago. The Oakland Coliseum is okay.
"I'm also a Padres fan, and I get teased about that a lot, like, how can a Raiders fan be a San Diego fan? At the Padres games, we have no trouble at all. This is actually my favorite stadium. We have our own separate entrance, and accessibility is easier. They've made it possible for us, unlike some other stadiums, where they treat you like some common Joe. I feel like I'm treated better here."
Bravo's wife explains. "I don't think Dodger Stadium treats us very well. Last year, they took all the handicapped seats and handicapped parking from the reserved area. They put the handicapped parking in the back at the outfield, which made it almost impossible for some people to get to where they wanted. Because of that, we had a big incident.
"They wouldn't let Joe go on the elevator, and we had to use the escalator. A little boy got his shoelace caught in the escalator going down. Joe can walk a little and hold the rail on the escalator, but the little boy started a chain reaction. And when they hit the 'stop' button on the escalator, it doesn't stop, it just slows down and then it stops. We got separated, and I saw him falling, and I was thinking it was him, but it wasn't him. By the time everyone backed up, my little four-year-old boy was crushed. He was crying. And the people at the stadium said to us, 'This isn't handicapped parking, we're just letting you in as a courtesy.' They give you a real hard time when you go there. There was an incident report filed on the whole thing."
Joe picks up the story. "We gave up our season tickets at Dodger Stadium because of accessibility. I love Qualcomm; it's a good stadium. I love the people out here. It's like being at home — they treat you good."
Samuel Russo, 38, has lived in San Diego since 1964. "I've been a season-ticket holder for three years and a Charger fan forever." Russo gives Qualcomm Stadium a mixed rating for handicapped accessibility. "They have preferred access for the parking, which makes it very easy to circumvent a lot of the long lines. My major complaint is the elevator. It states at the elevator that it's only for the handicapped or press, but it's always full of other people. People in wheelchairs actually have to wait longer than they should. The elevator operators say that they have no control over it and I should complain to the management -- which I have. I've written letters."
Russo, a divorce lawyer, attends other stadium events besides Charger games. "I was here at the Aztec game last night, and I come to a lot of Padres games. The type of event doesn't make as much difference as where your seats are located. Originally, we had plaza-level seats, but the restrooms are so inundated with other people, it's hard to even get to the handicapped stall. We upgraded our seats to press level because of that."
Bobby and Daniel Collins both suffer from muscular dystrophy. Wheelchair-bound, Bobby, 11, and Daniel, 8, attend all the Chargers games with their parents, who are season-ticket holders. Bobby does most of the talking: "It's not really too difficult here. Sometimes it's hard to find a parking spot, even in the handicapped section." When asked about seating complaints, Bobby seems content until his mother, Starla, asks him, "What about getting down close to the field?"
Bobby: "We can't get very close to the players. Our seats are in the loge level, but we can't get near the field level. It's pretty much okay, but I can't get to the field level or anything close. And when they throw T-shirts and balls and stuff, I can't get low enough to catch them."
Daniel: "We can't see the fireworks because of the overhang."
Starla Collins elaborates on her sons' complaints. "If you don't come early to the games -- an hour or so -- you'll have a hard time finding a handicapped spot. Usually they have an area roped off, and sometimes they'll let you into it if you can't find a spot. It's pretty hard to see the fireworks and the skydivers coming down. They could put more on the big screen so that the people who can't look up can see what's goin' on. The seating is fairly good, except there's no way to get the kids down to see the players up close. But [attending games] is something that children and people who are handicapped can do pretty easily, so it's nice that everything is accessible for them."
Tim Walker, 42, relaxes in a folding chair, sipping a cold drink with his crutches on the pavement. His left leg was amputated just above the knee after an auto accident. Walker is here with his wife and friends, all Raiders fans who constantly tease him for being a Chargers fan.
"I live in Fallbrook, and I come to a couple of games a year," says Walker. "Usually, at the stadium, I go on crutches because it's really difficult when you're in a wheelchair. There's people all around you, they don't make room for you, and it's tough getting in and out of the elevator. And half the people using the elevator shouldn't even be using it. They're pushy and obnoxious, and I think the elevator should be left for the people who need it. But they do have a lot of handicapped parking and spaces where you can sit in the stadium. I don't really need it that much, and I really shouldn't be speaking for the people in wheelchairs 'cause I only use my wheelchair on occasion — like at a mall.
"I come to Padres games, but football's the worst because of the crowds. There's still probably 10 to 15 percent compassionate people out there, but the rest couldn't care less if you are in a wheelchair or on crutches, and they won't give you any access -- especially at a sporting event like this!"
Walker points to a white car in another handicapped spot. A handicapped tag hangs on its rearview mirror, and the rear license plate reads "Pearl Harbor Survivor."
"This chick right here jumped out of her car and started sprintin' away. She was, like, 22 years old. We saw her plate and asked her if she knew what the Arizona was, and she was totally clueless!"
Cisco Soria, 42, lives in Huntington Park and arranges trips to Raiders games in San Diego with his handicapped friends. Soria lived in National City in the 1980s before moving back to Los Angeles. An aficionado of Southern California's major stadiums, Soria arranged for 44 people to come to the game — some from as far away as Utah — and had no trouble getting tickets.
"I have a friend who's a member of the Raiders' booster club in Utah who got the tickets for us," Soria reports. "We started this tradition eight or nine years ago. I became a Chargers fan when I lived here, but they've been playing so badly," he laughs, "that I didn't want to get beat up, so I wore my Raiders cap!"
Soria's wife, Olivia, lauds the stadium for its handicapped access. "It's a great, accessible stadium, it's great for tailgating, and it's better than the Coliseum in L.A.! We don't have any problems."
Their friend, Albert Martinez, also wheelchair-bound, is equally positive. "I love coming here. It's better than the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl. It's great for handicapped people here."
"The worst place was the Forum," Cisco pipes in. "They only had two handicapped restrooms in the whole Forum. But we go to Laker games at Staples Center, and they've made much better accommodations there."
Yacub Mitchell, 24, is attending the game with his nurse, Brenda Gamlin. Mitchell suffers from muscular dystrophy and requires the full-time attention of a nurse to keep his ventilator working. To power the extra machinery, his wheelchair is larger than most. A native San Diegan, Mitchell attends Mesa College. His appraisal of Qualcomm is less than enthusiastic.
"I come to a lot of Padres games and the Raiders games. I'm a big, loyal Raiders fan. There's a lot of disadvantages for the disabled. They have limited seating in one part of the stadium, no field-level seats, and no handicapped-accessible-only bathrooms. People like me need a nurse's assistance, and a female can't go in the male bathroom to help me. It's really a struggle sometimes. The Sports Arena is another joke -- it's worse than here. At the Sports Arena, a larger wheelchair can't even get in the bathroom. They need to work to improve and adapt to people in wheelchairs."
Gamlin, Mitchell's nurse, is equally critical. "They won't let me come in free to maintain his ventilator. I have to pay, too, and I think that's kind of unfair. I think there should be an exception for that. My other problem is that handicapped seating is up under the overhang, and he's kind of tall, so he can't even see the scoreboard."
Connie Porter, a Hillcrest resident, sits alone in the handicapped section while the Raiders warm up on the field. The game will not start for another hour yet. Porter has been slowly disabled by osteo-arthritis, but she still uses public transportation to attend Chargers games. "I've been a fan since they came to San Diego in 1961. Balboa Stadium wasn't a problem because I wasn't in a wheelchair then. It's mostly goin' out of the stadium, that's a problem.
"Some people can be kind of rude, and everybody's tryin' to get out really fast. Since they've remodeled the handicapped seating areas, it's been perfect. But it's hard to leave. I just try to be patient. Lately, I've been waiting for a while after the game is over. I just finish my Coke and let those who feel they have to be first go ahead and leave first."