Thursday No "Holiday" for Handicapped Jazz Fans
by Carl Wagenfohr
Photo by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Warm breezes and cool jazz welcomed a crowd of about 9,000 to Coachman Park for the opening night of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday last Thursday. But the welcome mat wasn't out for those with handicaps.
It's not that the Clearwater Jazz Holiday failed to have good intentions. Indeed, a large area capable of accommodating 40 or so wheelchairs had been set aside close to the stage, offering a terrific up-close view of the performers - a privilege normally reserved only for VIP's.
But Jazz Holiday's good intentions fell victim to poor execution. The wheelchair seating area was inaccessible to wheelchairs! Why? A barricade had been placed across the paved sidewalk that led to it. And getting around the barricade meant propelling the wheelchair through several yards of pine bark ground cover, an impossible task for non-motorized chairs and difficult even for those with wide tires and motors.
Asked to move the barricade by one wheelchair user, the security staff at the VIP entrance refused. Two Clearwater firefighters graciously offered to help by lifting the wheelchair and its occupant over the pine bark, but their assistance was declined because the wheelchair user would have been unable to get out later to use a port-o-let if necessary.
Martha Filipez was the only handicapped occupant of the reserved area on Thursday night, her solitude testimony to the event's dysfunctional handicapped seating plan. Despite the assistance of a volunteer and the power and wide wheels of her chair, Filipez said of her effort to reach the handicapped area, "It's hard."
Unable to reach the safety of the handicapped seating area, wheelchair users parked along the edge of the paved sidewalk that meanders through Coachman Park. One of those was Bruce Witham, a member and committee chairman of the Pinellas County chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans Association of America.
Witham said, "The wheelchair seating is non-existent. They used to reserve handicapped seating for you, but they don't do that any more. I've talked to several city officials and they've said they're going to do something about it, but nothing has ever come of it."
During the performance of headliner George Benson, the sidewalks became crowded with standees. Pedestrians were forced to walk on the grass, nearly trampling the wheelchair users seated there. At least two Clearwater Police Officers were asked to clear the sidewalks, but they made no effort to control the crowd. One of Clearwater's finest asked, "What do you want me to do about it", and walked away.
One wheelchair user, who left the concert early because it had become an ordeal, said, "They should add another item to the event DON'T list - DON'T bring your handicapped friends."
Fortunately, the complaints of the handicapped did not go unanswered.
"Jazz Holiday is the only Coachman Park event that is not controlled by the city," said Clearwater's Director of Parks and Recreation Kevin Dunbar. But he, along with the city's Manager of Special Events Terry Schmidt, came up with a solution.
They created a handicapped-seating area just in front of Coachman Park's pond and adjacent to the sidewalk. The seating area would have a wheelchair-friendly hard surface, barricades and handicapped signage.
"This is a real good permanent solution," said Dunbar, "they will have access to the food services and the restrooms - as convenient as convenient could be there to get to the parking lot."
"It will be in effect tonight," Dunbar said on Friday. And indeed it was.
And while the weather through the remainder of Jazz Holiday weekend was not as welcoming as on Thursday, handicapped concertgoers were to find a place of their own thanks to Dunbar, Schmidt and the city Parks & Rec employees who built the handicapped seating area on such short notice.
Return to Home Page
Return to Current Edition