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."