What the city of San Diego really should do, says Beverly Walker, is retrofit the sidewalks so that people in wheelchairs can get around. Though this might make city officials jittery, what with a lawsuit currently pending against the city of Sacramento over sidewalks considered unfriendly to disabled people, perhaps that'll be Walker's next project.
To get to an interview in University Heights' Trolley Barn Park, Walker had to tread into the street in her motorized wheelchair because in some places on her route, there are no curb ramps.
“The city needs to work on getting in accessible curb ramps,” she said. “I'm riding down the street more than I'm on the sidewalks. The alternative for her is to take the chance of negotiating some precarious 3-inch drops. “You literally have to go off the curb and hope you don't tip over,” she said.
A nuisance, yes, and a dangerous one at that, but Walker arrived nonetheless, clad in San Diego Chargers cap and San Diego Chargers windbreaker.
It might surprise people who have read about Beverly Walker in the paper that she's a devout Chargers fan. Yep, the same woman who has waged a bitter five-and-a-half-year-long legal war over Qualcomm Stadium that eventually threatened to ruin the Super Bowl is also a season ticket holder.
She's been attending games at the stadium since soon after she moved to San Diego in 1972 to go to college. That's where she also has season tickets to the Padres games, and that's where she watches San Diego State Aztec football games. She's even seen the Rolling Stones and the Eagles there. Considering how much she enjoys the place, it must have been particularly jarring for her to be verbally accosted the way she was by a man-inebriated, she thinks-during last month's Holiday Bowl college football game at Qualcomm. Just as she was wheeling herself off an elevator, Walker said, “a man there called me a few choice words that I won't repeat and said he hoped I lost.”
Although the forthright man at the Holiday Bowl has been the only person to give Walker a piece of his mind, her attorney received a ton of the stuff, and it's likely that legions of football fans in San Diego and beyond scorned her quietly for even daring to derail the Big Game.
And not just football freaks. “If the judge had ruled in our favor,,” Walker said, “then it had potential of making huge economic problems here in San Diego, and that probably had a lot of people in the business community pretty angry.”
Few probably thought the court would actually kill San Diego's Super Bowl XXXVII, all set for Jan. 26, but lots of people breathed easier on Jan. 9 when Judge Leo Papas denied Walker's request for an injunction against the city that would have ended the game before it started.
But, as she has said publicly, being the Grinch Who Stole Super Bowl Sunday “wasn't my intent in the first place.”
City leaders, she and her attorney determined, needed a kick in the pants forceful enough to get their attention focused on completing the work the city agreed to undertake back in 2001 to make Qualcomm more accessible for disabled people. “We felt that, if they thought maybe the Super Bowl was in jeopardy,” Walker said, “maybe that would get them to make the modifications a little faster.”
The local media said her effort “failed,” but Walker doesn't quite see it that way. “I believe that the disabled community won, and we won because we got more things accomplished in the stadium over a shorter period of time. I believe that if we hadn't [filed an injunction], disabled people would have went to the Super Bowl and found that there were a lot more things noncompliant that were potentially dangerous.”
Walker's injunction was the latest shot fired across the bow in her one-woman campaign to force the city to make Qualcomm Stadium comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the state of California's Title 24, which set standards for making facilities as accessible for disabled people as they are for the rest of us.
Athletics has been Walker's main squeeze for almost her entire life. She herself was actually an athlete, before the genetic disorder that now puts her in her wheelchair most of the time sidelined her permanently when she was 12 years old. She had dreamed of being an Olympic runner.
At 14, doctors inserted 15 inches of metal into her back because her spine was curving so badly it was threatening to crush her lungs. “They said, by your 19th birthday you'll be dead if you don't have this surgery,” Walker recalled.
The procedure cemented in Walker's psyche what she really already knew: that she'd eventually wind up living out her days in a wheelchair. She knew that on some level as young as age 7, when a particularly perceptive ophthalmologist diagnosed her with Marfan syndrome, a genetic connective-tissue disease that weakens some of the body's organs and its skeleton.
“I knew there was always something wrong because kids treated me different” Walker said. “They were first graders, and I looked like I was, maybe, a fourth grader already. Part of my problem is that [I was] thin and... very tall. By the time I was 14, I was 5-foot-11 already.
“I got called ‘The Jolly Green Giant' and all kinds of things.”
Thanks to her unhealthy spine, she has since lost a few inches of height. “My spine is so deteriorated that actually the vertebrae are just laying on the nerves,” she said.
The disease, for which there is no cure, is especially hard on the eyes, the bones and the heart. Walker is totally blind in her right eye, legally so in her left. “I have severe heart problems,” she said. “In fact, as I'm sitting here, I could literally die at any time. My aorta could rupture, because that's what usually kills people with Marfan syndrome.”
Walker's is one of those stories wherein the main character is supposed to die not long into adulthood. Dead at 32, she heard. Then it was 40. Having survived that, the next threshold is 50, which is the age she turns in 2003.
“I learned at a young age that you have to take life as it comes. You live your life,” Walker said. “Most people live their life and they say, OK, I'm going to do all this stuff when I retire. I don't do that-I've never done that. When I got a grasp of what my problem really was-probably around the age of 12-I thought, man, I gotta see and do everything that I can see and do.”
She's certainly seen a lot of the United States. Her father, Frank Walker, did communications work while serving in the Air Force and moved the family around the country-Georgia, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Florida. The Walker clan, which also included her mother Lida, older sister Frances and younger brother Frank Jr., also spent time in the Philippines and Japan.
As soon as she mentions her father's military service, she quickly adds that he ran messages between the White House and the troops during Bay of Pigs crisis. Because her dad's job was “top secret,” she says, she doesn't know a lot of the specifics of his duties. “Sometimes we'd get phone calls in the night, and off he went.”
Walker's disability ensured that she wouldn't have a “normal” childhood. “I was kind of always, you know, an outcast,” she said. “I was always different; I was, like, this tall, skinny person that nobody knew quite how to deal with because I was always different. They were standoffish. I didn't have very many friends growing up.
“Mainly I was your bookworm, because I didn't fit in.”
The media calls her an “activist,” but Walker prefers “advocate.” The Qualcomm lawsuit is certainly her highest-profile cause, but it's not her first. She got her start in advocacy back in Hawaii when, at age 18, she helped lobby the governor for better work programs for the blind.
In her experience as a visually impaired person, she came across what's known as a “sheltered workshop,” part of a program that emerged in the 1950s and '60s as a way of getting disabled people out of the house and engaged in work. The one she experienced had blind people making touristy gadgets such as key chains for a few pennies per unit. Walker considered the program somewhat demeaning, and she pushed for programs that trained people to do more substantive and fulfilling work.
“I was trying to get them to see that persons who were blind can do just about anything out there if they just get the proper training,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Walker cut the parental cord and stayed in Hawaii while her parents moved to California. About a year later, she relocated to San Diego to go to college. She attended classes at Southwestern College in Chula Vista before transferring to San Diego State. There she received a bachelor's degree in social work and master's degree in rehabilitation counseling.
Most kids fresh out of college look toward a rewarding career and/or a fulfilling family life. Walker knew that a family life was out of the question. Marriage, she said, “was never an option. As soon as I found out I had a hereditary condition, I made my mind up that I would live a single life, because I would never want to raise a child with the potential of having what I've had to go through in my life.
“If I would have gotten married and had children, then there's a 50-50 chance that either one or all of my children would have had Marfan syndrome.”
As for a career, she soon realized that, too, was unattainable. Walker worked as a telephone rape-crisis and domestic-violence counselor for a time. And there was stint working for the Navy as a drug-and-alcohol counselor. But her disease just wasn't going to let her keep it up. “[I] found out that with the medical problems I had, it just wasn't going to allow me to do the eight-hour day, and that was that.” Walker officially joined the ranks of the permanently disabled.
Without much in the way of options, Walker turned to her first love: sports. And she became a fixture at Qualcomm Stadium.
“I'm a Charger fan, a Padre fan,” she said. “I have season tickets to the Lady Aztecs basketball games. When it's baseball season, if I'm not watching baseball at the ballpark, then I'm at home watching it on TV.”
The worsening of her disease led Walker down the path to the lawsuit against the city that she filed in 1997, which, somewhat coincidentally, was the same year she started using a wheelchair. Yes, she can still walk-very short distances-but “I have permanent pain from it that never goes away,” she said.
As her condition worsened, she grew more and more acutely aware of her physical surroundings and how increasingly difficult it was to manage them.
“I needed field-level seats, pretty much, to be able to see the game because of my visual impairment,” she said. “Then I found it harder and harder to get up those stairs. One day I went with another person with a disability who had a foot problem and couldn't get up [the stairs].
“At that time, we had to come all the way down the field-level stairs and then go back up more stairs in order to get to the field-level seating. And I was like, there's got to be another way. There's got to be a way to get seats there so that persons with disabilities who can't do these stairs can get the same seats but be able to get to them a lot easier. That's when I started to look into the upgrade at Qualcomm Stadium and familiarize myself with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Walker contacted the state and federal governments and had them send her stacks of documents on the federal law and Title 24, the state law, and she spent hours upon hours poring through them.
For disabled people, the world changed on July 26, 1990, when Congress passed Public Law 101-336, better known as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law gave disabled individuals civil-rights protections similar to those enjoyed by people on the basis of race, sex or age, and it guaranteed them equal access to public accommodations, employment and transportation.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act was I think one of the greatest things that could happen for persons with disabilities,” Walker said, “because it finally gave government and private industry-it basically let them know that now... persons with disabilities are human beings too, and they have every right to participate in society like anybody else.”
She knew that the city and the Chargers had agreed to $78 million worth of renovations at Qualcomm as part of an amendment to the football team's 1995 long-term lease pact, and when she went to a meeting of a citizens review committee on ADA and disability issues, the topic that day was the Qualcomm renovation project.
“I'm sitting there and I'm looking at those drawings, and I'm going, ‘That's not right,'” she said. “They were going to build what's called the Gold Club, and they weren't putting any seats in the Gold Club for persons with disabilities.”
Walker recalled that under the work plan, seats for disabled people were going to be grouped together,” and that didn't jibe with her research. “Under the ADA,” she noted, “it says you can't segregate disabled people from the rest of the people, and that's exactly what they were doing.”
The Chargers, Walker said, ended up creating what she calls the “wind-tunnel seats” in an area in what had been the old Loge Section where the wind would “just rip right through there.” And, she added, “if you were disabled and you were in a wheelchair, the only way to actually to get to the real amenities of what you were paying for was to have to go down a noncompliant ramp or wait for an elevator, maybe sometimes almost 20 minutes, in order to get down a half a level to where all of the special places for all the other Gold Club members were.”
Before going to court, Walker took her case to the San Diego City Council-at least three times, she says-to inform city leaders that renovation plans were out of compliance with the federal and state laws. “Each time I would go there, the then-Mayor [Susan] Golding would say that they were complying with the law, and that was it,” Walker recalled.
One day in 1997, Walker left the podium for the last time, listened to Golding say emphatically once again that the city was in compliance with the law and waited for a break in the meeting to approach City Attorney Casey Gwinn.
“I said, ‘Mr. Gwinn, my name's Beverly Walker, and you can tell the mayor that I'm going to sue the city for noncompliance with the ADA and Title 24 at Qualcomm Stadium.' And then, of course, his reaction was, well, wait a minute, let one of my people talk to you tomorrow-I'll get somebody to phone you,” Walker said.
“I had already made up my mind.”
The frustrated advocate went home and called an attorney, Amy Vandeveld, whom she had met previously and told her she wanted to sue the city. “The next day,” Walker said, “the city attorney person called me, and I said, ‘You're going to have to speak to my attorney.'
“In the beginning when I came up there and talked at the podium, they basically ignored everything I had to say. When they heard ‘lawsuit,' then, of course, immediately they wanted to have somebody talk to me to talk me out of that.”
During the next two and a half years, Walker and Vandeveld engaged in “bitter negotiations,” Walker said, with attorneys for the city, the Padres and the Chargers. At times, an attorney from the federal Department of Justice, which oversees ADA compliance matters, was also present. Items on the table included amenities in restrooms, elevators, height of concessions and condiment stands, types, location and number of seats for disabled people and issues of slope, among other things.
The sides reached agreement on Feb. 12, 2001. The city would spend roughly $5.4 million to better comply with the laws. The simpler fixes would be completed by April 1, 2001 while the more difficult, construction intensive work would be completed by April 2002.
Come December 2002, eight months past the deadline, some of the work-concessions and condiment stands and restrooms, for example, had yet to be completed. And Walker learned that in the case of the Super Bowl, the NFL was not intending to comply with the settlement agreement provision that requires a certain number of game tickets be saved for disabled fans. So she and Vandeveld filed an injunction asking the court to suspend the Super Bowl.
The city and the Chargers argued that they were doing the best they could to get the modifications completed as quickly as possible. And they argued that the Super Bowl is a private event for which the general public cannot purchase tickets the way they can for a regular-season game, and so the Super Bowl is not subject to the settlement agreement's ticketing provision.
“We started this lawsuit in 1997,” Walker said. “They had all that time to figure out what they could do at that stadium and what they couldn't do. It amazes me when they say, well, we did the best we could in the amount of time we had. From day one, they knew that they were going to have to comply. The federal government was telling them that they had to comply. What the matter was was how much would they have to do and where would it have to go. They knew that they were going to have to lower the concessions stands, lower the condiment stands [and] fix the restrooms, but still there are violations in the restrooms.”
Walker said she believes the city was stalling, and her injunction against the Super Bowl was a tool aimed at getting the city “to comply faster.” Killing the Super Bowl, she said, “was never my thought.”
On Dec. 20, Walker and Vandeveld received a letter from the city attorney's office offering Walker 36 tickets to the Super Bowl-eight for people in wheelchairs and one guest each, and 10 for people who otherwise have trouble getting around and one guest each. All disabled people receiving a ticket must be a season-ticket holder, according to the letter. In exchange, the city wanted Walker to agree to drop the requirement that the city to finish certain work on seating, railings, ramps and restrooms and promise not to sue again. Walker rejected the offer.
“What I thought they were saying,” she said, “was that they knew that we were going to find violations, that they knew they had not totally complied with the settlement agreement, so that they knew possibly a new lawsuit could have been filed.”
Stadium officials say the injunction had nothing to do with how fast they were doing the work at Qualcomm. In any case, they were apparently ready for Judge Papas when he paid a highly publicized visit to the stadium, along with Walker, her attorney and attorneys for the city. After touring the stadium and inspecting the work, Papas, who's been on the case since the beginning and has earned Walker's admiration, ruled that the city was making a good-faith effort and that the Super Bowl would not be stopped.
He left open, however, the matter of making tickets available for disabled people and asked the two sides to work that issue out. The sides have continued to meet with Papas on to update him on the progress of the remaining issues.
There's no doubt Walker would do it all over again. But she has regrets. A schedule of mandatory settlement meetings caused her to miss Christmas with her parents in Ventura in 1999. She fought tears as she told how that Christmas turned out to be her dad's last. He died Jan. 4, 2000.
“Before I even buried him, there was a meeting at Qualcomm Stadium with the judge,” she said, “and I left Ventura, took a train all the way down here, got off the train, went to that meeting, got back on the train and went right back up to my mother to take care of my dad's arrangements and to bury him.”
Talking to Walker leaves no question about the level of admiration and gratitude she has for her parents.
“When I was growing up, they treated me just like any other kid. They knew the possibilities [for danger], but they didn't stop me from doing anything I wanted to do,” she said. “If I wanted to go out there and play kickball with the kids, or go and play baseball and softball, then they let me do that. It helped me in... getting an identity and realizing that, yeah, I might have this problem, but I can still live my life.”
At press time, Walker, the city and Judge Papas were still haggling over details of disabled seating and ticketing. Walker was pleased to learn that the judge ruled that the Super Bowl is not to be considered a “private event,” as the city had contended, and that it was in fact subject to the settlement agreement.
And although Papas allowed the city more latitude in completing the work than Walker would have liked, she considers her effort a success. Thanks to her efforts, perhaps more disabled people will attend ballgames at Qualcomm, mostly because the seating is better. And when they get there, it'll be easier for them to do things the rest of us rarely think about-use the restroom, for example, buy a hotdog and put some mustard on it and get to their seat without difficulty.
“Now when persons with disabilities come to the stadium,” Walker said, “they have a more equal access to everything that other people took for granted.”