Raising the Bar on Breaking Barriers

By Tracy Huddleson

You are a patron of Cinerama, of EMP, of the new football/soccer stadium. You use a wheelchair, or perhaps are hearing- or sight-impaired. You can hear the film at Cinerama, but can’t see the action. You can see the musical exhibits at EMP, but can’t hear them. You can wheel through the football stadium with ease, but reaching the kitchen counter in your suite is difficult. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that your access to those entities is excellent and your visit memorable? Vulcan’s. To guarantee that access is accomplished legally, safely, respectfully and imaginatively, Vulcan contracts with Kevin McGuire, expert extraordinaire on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with its many implications.

McGuire is the Chairman & CEO of McGuire Associates, Inc., a consulting and training firm based on the East Coast that trains people to work with the disabled and acts as a liaison between business and the Justice Department on accessibility issues. A graduate of Boston University and Georgetown University Law Center, he was a former aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, a film and TV actor, and a mediator for entities in New York and Boston. Injured as a boy by a drunk driver, he now advocates for the disabled community from within it.

The ADA, enacted in 1990, had sweeping ramifications for American businesses, including developers of ballparks and arenas. Towards that end, Bob Collier, Vulcan’s construction director, brought McGuire on board in 1997 to help with access issues for the then newly-opening Rose Garden in Portland. He has been involved in every Vulcan building project since. McGuire said, “The Justice Department expects builders to do the right thing but my job is to clarify what the ‘right thing’ is.” Collier said, “Kevin has been instrumental in our development of meaningful dialogue with the disabled community. Through his efforts and guidance, we have and are developing facilities that are accessible to all, including many innovative means for improving accessibility.” Some of the innovations developed with Kevin’s assistance include: field-level wheelchair seating positions in the new stadium; the creation of the first suites to meet Justice Department guidelines in any stadium; and access for the sensory-impaired at Cinerama Theatre.

According to McGuire, “Vulcan is very proactive about consulting the deaf and blind communities in their planning process, not just the mobility-challenged. As a result, we have an amazing relationship with the entire disabled community,” he said. “There is a bond. There is trust. They know when we say yes to something, we’ll come through and when we say no, we have a rational reason for doing so.”

During the reopening of Cinerama, the deaf community asked what we were planning to do to ensure their enjoyment of the theatre. So Jeff Graves, assistant project manager in Construction, investigated and acquired a MOPIX system. That now allows both the patrons who are deaf/hearing-impaired and blind/visually-impaired to take in the Cinerama experience, he said. For patrons who are deaf or hearing-impaired, an LED screen was built into the back wall of Cinerama, and captioning is projected onto it. Patrons who are Deaf/hearing-impairedare given a nine-inch gooseneck device that clamps onto their cup-holder. Using reflectors that bounce the captioning from the back wall to the device, it reads out right in the patron’s line of vision.

McGuire said, “For patrons who are blind, the challenge is different. They can hear all the dialogue taking place, but they miss any unspoken action, so a narrative dialogue describing all visual action is fed into headsets. In this way, many patrons with disabilities can enjoy the full film experience while the hearing and sighted audience is not distracted.

He added, “I worked with Jason J. Hunke, Vulcan’s marketing and PR director, to test the system. We invited children who are blind or deaf to Cinerama for “The Mark of Zorro.” It was the most enlightening experience of my life, watching them truly take in film for the first time. They were laughing and crying at once. Later the kids wrote to Paul Allen, thanking him for the experience. One letter read: “I want to thank you for inviting us to Cinerama. It was the first time in my life I was treated like a human being.” “This was incredibly sad to me; it told me what a long way we have to go as a society. Something as baseline as enjoying a film shouldn’t be so unusual.”

Jeff Graves said, “Kevin has always consulted with the philosophy of what’s fair for both the user with disabilities and the owner. His work with Vulcan and local disabled groups has broken down the barriers for great communication and mutual respect.”

Broadening our reach EMP access is an ongoing challenge when trying to expand access for the disabled. While access is relatively easy for the mobility impaired, enabling the sensory-impaired to interact with the musical exhibits using the MEG (Museum Exhibit Guide) is difficult. McGuire is working with Robert Fitzsimmons, senior project manager in Business Development, on MEG II, a more user-friendly version of the program for the disabled.

Fitzsimmons said, “Making information and the interactive experience accessible to as many visitors as possible has always been a key component of the MEG program. With the help of Kevin McGuire, we reviewed MEG with many members of the Washington Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities during the early development stages. Accessibility will continue to be an area of focus.”

McGuire is also currently directing the review of Vulcan’s Web site accessibility, a somewhat new arena. McGuire said, “With every new project, I get questions thrown at me I don’t know how to answer, questions that take a bit of digging. As a metaphor, I play a lot of wheelchair tennis. When you play the net, you’re stuck; you have to react quickly. Working with the disabled community can be like that. But the great thing about Vulcan is that Paul Allen and Jody Patton are extremely committed to breaking down barriers – literally. At this point, there are almost different expectations for a Vulcan project. They’ve completely raised the bar.”

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