Disabled man accuses Smithsonian of discrimination

The Washington PostAugust 16, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- A disabled college student and his brother have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, alleging that they were denied access to flight simulators and publicly embarrassed during a museum visit last year.

The suit was filed in Washington's federal district court Thursday against the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the museum, and Pulseworks, the company that operates the simulators.

Claire Brown, a museum spokeswoman, said officials hadn't been served with the lawsuit and "we're looking into it."

Max Gold, 21, who was born with a rare vascular condition that has required him to use a wheelchair since his right leg was amputated at age 6, and his brother, Jake, 25, were visiting from Merrick, N.Y., last August when the incident occurred.

The museum features two simulators: FLY, which boasts an "F-18 Experience," and RIDE, which simulates combat sorties and invites visitors to control the flight.

The Golds said Max initially tried to use FLY and was told that the simulator harness "required two legs and since Max only has one," it was too risky. "I understood that," Max Gold said.

The brothers were allowed to purchase tickets for the RIDE simulator.

"Jake prepped me for getting out of my chair, took off my seat belt, took my wallet from around my neck and began lifting me when a supervisor came running over," Max Gold said.

"She said I had to put him down," said Jake Gold.

Jake Gold said the supervisor then directed all her comments to him, despite Max's attempts to speak for himself. "It was an assumption that was made that because Max is in a wheelchair, he cannot communicate properly," he said.

"She was yelling that the only way I could ride this ride was if I physically got out of the chair and walked up the stair," Max Gold said. He says he tried explaining that his brother had been lifting him for most of his life, "but she didn't understand that I was trying to get involved and state my authority."

Jake Gold, an admitting clerk for a Long Island hospital who enters nursing school full-time at the end of the month, said he and Max have their chair-lift routine down to a science. "I'm 6-foot-3-inches, 200 pounds, I work out regularly and I have no problem moving Max," who weighs a little over 100 pounds. "We're always a team together."

According to lawyer Shawn Heller of the Social Justice Law Collective, the lawsuit seeks a policy change that accommodates individuals with disabilities, staff training on accommodations and sensitivity, and unspecified damages for emotional distress.

John McGovern, who heads Recreation Accessibility Consultants outside Chicago, said he has worked in parks and recreation for decades and "there was virtually never a time where we couldn't find a satisfactory middle ground where a person with a disability couldn't enjoy a full experience."

McGovern said that since the Americans With Disabilities Act came into effect, he has seen major modifications to public access, signage and lifts. Last year, new Justice Department standards took effect governing playgrounds, golf courses, amusement parks, fitness facilities and swimming pools, among other venues. He said those new standards -- for example, mandating poolside lifts that disabled people can operate by themselves -- are the first of many changes to come.

"The population is aging," said McGovern, and "we're only going to see the number of people with disabilities grow as time goes by." People in "various states of mobility want full access to public and private facilities."

Max Gold, who is entering his junior year studying aviation security at the State University of New York at Farmingdale and wants to work at an airport after graduating, said he and his brother came straight to the museum from the train "due to my absolute love for aviation."

He said he left surprised and disappointed that the museum couldn't accommodate him. By the descriptions of the rides, "you were actually able to have a hands-on experience with flying a plane. Once I saw that, I thought, 'I absolutely must try this.' "

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