Local News

Friday, Sep 28 2012 09:00 PM

Locked out: Disabled father fights for access to son's football practice

  1. 1 of 5

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Deon Williams wheels himself along the grass to watch his son Deon Jr. practice with his football team behind Discovery Elementary School on Wednesday night in Bakersfield.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Deon Williams watches his son Deon Jr. practice with his football team behind Discovery Elementary School on Wednesday night in Bakersfield.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Deon Williams and Dominique Davis, his girlfriend of more than ten years and mother of Deon Jr., talk with Tara Jones while they watch their children practice football behind Discovery Elementary School in Bakersfield on Wednesday night.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Deon Williams and Dominique Davis, his girlfriend of more than ten years and mother of Deon Jr., watch their son practice football behind Discovery Elementary School in Bakersfield on Wednesday night.

    click to expand click to collapse
  5. 5 of 5

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Deon Williams and Dominique Davis, his girlfriend of more than ten years and mother of Deon Jr., watch their son practice football behind Discovery Elementary School in Bakersfield on Wednesday night.

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BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

A pack of 8- to 12-year-old boys sprints around a field, running through cones and tossing around a football during their triweekly practice. On either side of the field are their parents, grandparents and other relatives cheering them on and giving them tips to improve their game.

About 100 feet away, on the outside of the field's fence are one set of parents, watching their 9-year-old son, the team's starting running back, from afar.

The dad, Deon Williams, uses a wheelchair. He was paralyzed from the waist down three years ago when his spine was hit after shots broke out at a nightclub. He can't get any closer to his son because the only open gate isn't wheelchair accessible.

"He can't really hear me. He's way over there," Williams said when asked if he ever tries to shout advice and encouragement to his son, Deon Williams Jr. The only way he can even recognize his son is by Deon Jr. pushing his sleeves up above his pads.

The Williams family is part of the Golden Empire Youth Football league's Northwest Falcons freshman team. The league, a nonprofit organization, uses school fields to practice on for free. The Falcons practice at Discovery Elementary School in the Fruitvale School District. The Williamses have been locked in a dispute with the league and the district over the lack of an open wheelchair accessible gate during practice.

The one open gate, called an S gate, is a maze. To get to the field, pedestrians must wind through two narrows walkways filled with zig-zagging metal poles. Many of the kids throw their football gear over the fence rather than navigate the gate while holding their bulky pads.

The team practices from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. The school's custodial staff leaves at about 7 p.m. And it's against district policy to leave the other gates open after all staff has left, said Matt Torres, assistant superintendent of Fruitvale.

The gate used for football practice is always open to allow the community to the use the field, he said. But its obstacles are meant to keep out large objects such as bikes that could destroy the field and bring a whole host of issues and liability to the school.

Relying on the football team to lock the gates after practice is not an option, Torres said.

"We don't put other people in charge of our facilities," he said. "Oftentimes these are just volunteer coaches, so we'd be putting the school in the hands of volunteers. We're not inclined to do that."

If the league wants to keep the gates open, district policy says it can pay $25 per hour to keep custodians after hours, Torres said.

Ron White, executive director of the league, said he's been in talks with the district to try to keep more gates open. By the end of the season, he calculated it would cost thousands of dollars to pay for custodians to stay and make sure the gates are locked at the end of practice. And that's money the nonprofit league simply doesn't have, he said.

White, a retired police officer, was hurt in the line of duty and is legally disabled himself, he said. So his sensitivity to the Williamses is extremely high, he said.

The league has tried to make other accommodations for the Williamses, he said. It moved practice from Endeavour Elementary School to Discovery to be adjacent to a park where Williams could sit to watch practice. It switched two teams' practice spots at Discovery so Williams' team would be closer to the fence.

"This is not a case where people are turning their heads," White said. "We've done everything we can do within our means."

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that, among other things, public accommodations have to be accessible to those with disabilities. Whether the school or the league is more responsible to ensure that happens is not clear cut, said Andrew Mudryk, associate director at Disability Rights California and a lawyer who has litigated ADA cases. Both have some responsibility, he said. But he would guess a judge would rule the school district has more responsibility because it is opening its facility to the public.

On the other hand, Brandy Midkiff, systems change advocate for the Independent Living Center of Kern County, an organization that aids people with disabilities, said the league would be responsible for ensuring Williams has access to practice. Cost would only be an excuse if it were an astronomical amount, she said.

The district is not responsible because the football practice is not its program, she said.

"A judge is going to find paying for someone to make sure a is gate open and shut is not unreasonable," Midkiff said.

All the Williamses know is that they are not satisfied that everything that can be done is being done. Dominique Davis, Williams' girlfriend and Deon Jr.'s mother, said he was told the couple could pay out-of-pocket if they wanted to pay for a custodian to keep a gate open. But she's already paid $250 for their son to join the league, she said.

"They just really didn't want to hear me," she said of when she's tried to negotiate with the league.

For Williams, the whole situation is embarrassing. The family has contemplated a lawsuit, but isn't sure how to go about it, Williams said.

One night a couple of weeks ago, the team was able to keep a wheelchair accessible gate open at the beginning for Williams to get in. He and Deon Jr. were thrilled, he said, to be able to talk to each other like the other sons and parents.

But by the end of practice, someone had come by and locked that gate. A couple of parents hoisted Williams' wheelchair over the fence, while a parent and a coach supported him as he clung to the fence and pulled himself outside through the S gate.

"My pants were falling all off me. I was embarrassed," he said. "I scraped my foot a little bit, too."

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