Kathryn Getz knew there was going to be a problem last month.
Almost 80 years old, she has been attending Penn State football games for about 50 years. In recent years, since becoming dependent on a cane to get around, she has parked in the handicapped-accessible spaces, like those at the Shields Building, before heading off to tailgate with her family and celebrate with other Nittany Lion fans.
Then in August, she got some bad news.
The university was moving Americans with Disabilities Act parking spaces — not just to the next building down, or even the next block away. People with mobility issues or other limitations were being moved to Innovation Park, more than 2 miles from the stadium. Shuttles would be provided to transport them from that parking area to Beaver Stadium, across Interstate 99 and down Park Avenue in the thickest part of gameday traffic.
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Weeks before the first home game, Getz could tell this wasn’t going to work.
“I guess I’ll be sitting in my car alone at The Penn Stater on gameday munching on a little sandwich before I go to the game. Alone,” she wrote in a letter to the Centre Daily Times.
Penn State said the changes were made because they were necessitated by building projects like the Intramural Building expansion and the construction of Pegula Ice Arena that have eaten into other areas that have been used for parking in previous years.
“Those, in addition to a stormwater project in the same area, have all impacted ADA parking,” said athletic department spokesman Jeff Nelson.
The University of Akron game brought the first test of the new system. According to two fans, the university dropped the ball.
Alumni Lisa Watts and husband Randy Flanagan, of Mechanicsburg, made the trip for the home opener, one of three games they planned to attend for coach James Franklin’s inaugural season. Flanagan has muscular dystrophy, making him rely on a scooter to get around. The couple weren’t thrilled about the changes, but they were willing to give them a chance. After all, with shuttle buses running between the stadium and the distant lot, how bad could it be?
They quickly found it worse than expected.
They were initially told that there were 20 buses making the loop. They then saw them: yellow school buses that were not accessible. They said a parking attendant told them only half of the buses were ADA accessible.
Later, they said, they were told that of those 20 total buses, only five were actually running. Even the accessible buses could only accommodate three wheelchair-bound passengers at a time, making the passengers wait.
When they made it onto the second accessible bus, Flanagan’s scooter wasn’t secured.
Nor was the wheelchair of another passenger, which Watts said overturned en route to the stadium, leaving the elderly lady with a bump on her head.
“It was less than what I would call reasonable access for someone with a disability,” Watts said.
On the return trip, they decided not to risk taking the bus again. Instead, Watts walked while Flanagan drove on the scooter with its limited battery. It seemed the safer option, they said, and Watts said she felt bad for those with manual wheelchairs for whom there was really no choice but getting back on the buses.
“Please know that it is our desire to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for each and every fan on game day and we clearly failed with our ADA parking and shuttle service,” associate athletic director Mark Bodenschatz said in a Tuesday email to the couple.
Nelson said that big changes are being made in anticipation of the next home game, against the University of Massachusetts on Sept. 20. More shuttles are planned, and all will be wheelchair accessible. Drop-off will be in the front row of Red Lot, closest to the stadium, and all drivers will be educated on ADA compliance by Friday.
Most importantly, Nelson said, more parking spaces will be available.
There will be 50 at Wagner Building, but to use them, people will have to come early and stay until pedestrian traffic has dispersed. Watts said that’s not a workable solution for many because there are no handicapped-accessible restroom facilities in the area for such a long wait.
Then there are 40 more spots at the Nittany Lion Softball Park.
These come with strings attached, though. Nelson confirmed that those spaces will be for Nittany Lion Club members. According to the club brochure available on the athletics department website, the NLC supports the school’s student athletics financially, and a gift of $1,000 or more qualifies for preferred parking, while $2,500 and up qualifies for reserved parking.
“I just don’t know how it’s not considered discrimination,” Watts said. “We’re not asking for ADA front-row parking in the tunnel.”
What she and Flanagan would like to see is at least a recognition of the fact that people who purchase ADA tickets, the ones for seats that aren’t even seats, but empty spaces where a wheelchair or other mobility device can be parked as its own seating, would qualify for parking that recognizes those special limitations.
The couple have tickets for the Ohio State and Maryland games, but without changes to the policy, they said, they will be forced to ask for a refund instead of cheering with other fans in the stadium.
They don’t think that Penn State made the move maliciously, just that university officials didn’t, and still don’t, fully grasp how limiting a disability can be and how much something like a football game can mean to someone who lives life in a wheelchair. What they do think is that the business side of things is starting to control more and more decisions.
Getz agrees. She avoided problems because her son, rather than see his mother left out of the tradition she loves, bought her a parking place next to the stadium. She knows that makes her very lucky.
“A lot of people just couldn’t do that,” she said.
She was particularly disappointed that so many people with disabilities had problems parking but she saw near-empty lots at Shields and Wagner.
“I love the university. Don’t get me wrong,” Getz said. “Everything comes down to how much money you have, whether you have the money to pay for what they want you to pay for.”