Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

In 2013, I covered Coachella and Stagecoach for the first time for the Coachella Valley Independent—but I had concerns about doing so. In the fall of 2011, I suffered a serious back injury. As a result, I am unable to stand or sit for long periods of time.

Thankfully, while on site during Coachella in 2013, I discovered the services of Goldenvoice’s ADA department, which is in charge of accommodating guests with various disabilities. Three years later, the department is doing an ever-better job of doing so.

If you’ve attended either Coachella or Stagecoach, you may have seen Austin Whitney, of Accessible Festivals. Austin, in his wheel chair, is seemingly everywhere, and always with his service dog, Ophelia.

When I went to meet Whitney at one of the ADA platforms near the Mane Stage on Saturday evening during Stagecoach, he was handling an issue with an ADA wristband holder—with a smile on his face. As we went to find a place to chat, he talked to me about being from Berkeley, Calif., and about how seeing Rancid perform at Coachella was a highlight for him. As we made our way through the grounds, many people screamed his name—and a whole lot of people asked if they could pet Ophelia.

“I was in a car accident when I was 18,” Whitney said. “It severed my spinal cord and paralyzed me from the waist down. That really changed my life dramatically. At the time, my world was turned upside down. I had been very active in sports before that, and all my friends went off to college. My whole college plan was messed up. I was going to go to the University of Michigan, and there was no way after an injury like that.”

Despite the injury, he was determined to attend Coachella in 2008, because Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, was performing.

“It was the greatest show I ever saw in my life,” Whitney said. “At that show, it was one of the first places I found myself smiling. I was consumed by self-pity and hopelessness, and I felt that my life was over. Sitting in that crowd, enjoying that show, I didn’t think about my disability, and I didn’t think about this anxiety that consumed me about my future. I was living in the moment and being happy.

“I started going to a decent amount of music festivals after that. Having that to look forward to every two months throughout the season gave me something to look forward to when I needed something to look forward to during the first one to two years that were the roughest.”

His experiences led him to start working with festival promoters. He wanted to see them go above and beyond the legal requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act and focus on creating a truly enjoyable experience for those who had disabilities. He worked with Goldenvoice in 2011 and 2012, and he returned in 2016.

“(The year) 2011 was my first year at Coachella, and I started working for different promoters, and it kind of dawned on me: There’s a lot that could be done in terms of accommodations and people with disabilities. Other people I had been working with, they weren’t taking them into mind. I started law school at UC Berkeley at that time, and I was the only kind of person who had a legal background with that. The legal stuff doesn’t really matter: What I aim to do is really welcome people with disabilities and go beyond what’s considered ADA-compliant. It’s a very low bar with restrooms, parking and all of that stuff. I wanted to help promoters build events that people with disabilities could enjoy, and not have anxiety when they purchase a ticket.”

The department has to handle some complex and sensitive issues.

“We help everything between a 15-year-old with a broken foot to a 90-year-old with every conceivable health condition and an oxygen tank. We help folks who are hard of hearing, those who are deaf, those who are blind, those who are in wheelchairs, and (those with) various ailments and diseases. We deal with cancer and complications that come from illness, including skin conditions. Pregnancy isn’t a disability, but our services are helpful to a lot of folks, including those with late-term pregnancy; we put that under our umbrella and have a lot of patrons who are pregnant and offer our platforms to them—especially to those who go to Coachella because there are no chairs allowed.”

Whitney said Coachella and Stagecoach attendees noticed that the ADA team was a lot larger this year.

“It’s almost twice the size of the team we had last year,” he said. “These are people who love their job. One of the core elements of how we operate is to connect with people on a very human to human level—and that’s how you diffuse situations when they do arise. We also gave twice the amount of shuttle rides each weekend than were done last year. We have more carts going; I have eight or nine carts going right now. I have more people here to dedicate to what needs to get done.”

Whitney also added LED signs at each platform, making it easier for patrons to spot them. Doppler Labs was onsite offering patrons who are hard of hearing a pair of earplugs that can take in audio and be controlled with smartphones. Whitney said his team was offering guided tours to those with visual disabilities to help them make a mental map of the festival. A dietician was onsite to help those with dietary disabilities navigate among the food vendors. Finally, the department had a hotline phone number set up for the first time, which rang directly to Whitney or members of his staff—which took 160 calls a day.

At one point during Coachella, I watched as Whitney helped deal with chaos just before Ice Cube’s second-weekend performance. Both ADA platforms at the Coachella Stage were full—yet there was a huge line of attendees with ADA wristbands

“That was pretty crazy!” Whitney recalled. “We had 35 people who wanted to get on that platform before Ice Cube when Disclosure was performing. It was already pretty full—and then I had 35 people in line. If we didn’t help people get up there, they weren’t going to see the show.

“I know what it’s like if you can’t stand. If we can help, we will. If that means companions having to give up their seats and stand up, so be it. We got everyone on there, and that was a highlight for me and a personal accomplishment. I got awarded for that too, so it was great.”

Whitney said Goldenvoice has been supportive regarding those with disabilities, and he thinks things will improve even more during future festivals. He conceded there’s a lot of work left to do.

“Right now, we still have capacity issues on the platforms, and it’s crazy out there,” he said. “We have to work on viewing areas. We have the screens with the monitors with American Sign Language, but it has to be dialed in a lot more. I put a lot of attention during weekend 1 and 2 of Coachella doing disability-etiquette-training for security guards, and a huge amount of time is spent fixing mistakes out there with the security staff. They don’t need to be disability experts, but they need to understand when to reach out to us. Those are probably the big (changes) that we’re going to see. Also, (we’re working on) locking down our systems a little bit more and figuring out more innovative ways to get information out there for those with disabilities, whether that’s through social media or the packages with the wristbands that get sent out. After this event, I’ll do a full debrief with my staff to see what we can improve on.”

What advice does Whitney offer to those who are disabled and want to come to Coachella or Stagecoach?

Go to a music festival,” Whitney said with enthusiasm. “I’ve seen some folks who have more serious medical conditions than I can comprehend. I can find a solution to almost any accessibility issue if I know in advance. It’s a little more difficult if they just show up onsite. But if somebody has a specific concern, reach out to us. I’m fairly reachable by phone or e-mail, and this is what I do all the time. I can figure out a solution if there is a concern. I wouldn’t let someone’s disability stop them from experiencing something awesome like that Ice Cube show.” 

What I say will not make me a popular person, but here it is: For excellent reasons, dogs should not be—and usually aren’t—allowed in the backcountry of national parks.

Dogs, being predators, bother wildlife even when they’re leashed. Then there’s canine fecal matter, which carries a number of diseases and parasites that may be passed on to wildlife.

Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of dogs are not good hikers; their paws become lacerated, and since they sweat through their feet, it is easy for them to overheat. If a dog gets lost or injured, search-and-rescue volunteers may have to risk their lives to aid the animal. This year, off-leash dogs had to be rescued from Volcanoes, Acadia, Kenai Fjords and Yellowstone national parks.

There seem to be many people who cannot bear to be away from their fuzzy loved one for the length of a hike in the wilderness, so they bring their dog along—even when it is prohibited. How do they get away with that, you may ask? Easy: They just say it is a “service” or “therapy” dog.

Bingo. No one can question the service dog. Websites selling service-dog vests, collars and even bandanas brag you can “Take your dog anywhere.” Then they add that they sincerely hope no one is gaming the system by registering a service dog that is not, in fact, a service dog. Right.

In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry signed up 2,400 emotional support animals. Last year, it registered 11,000. No paperwork required; this is on the honor system. Public employees such as park rangers may ask whether the dog in question is a service dog, but they may not ask about the manner of a person’s disability. One is allowed to ask what the dog is trained to react to and what, as a caring professional, one should do upon that occasion. Websites promoting pseudo-service dogs warn that one should have the answer memorized so “it flows smoothly.” If the question evokes a blank stare from those who have not rehearsed their smooth response, one can, if one is in a snarky mood and out of uniform, mention that “liars go to hell.”

Those protected under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act are not pleased. Some say they are concerned that the rights of those with disabilities will be undermined by those who want Fido along and are willing to lie to achieve that goal. Although passing a dog off as a service animal is a federal offense, perpetrators figure they won’t get caught.

This is becoming enough of a problem on and off trails that municipalities such as Prescott, Ariz., are passing or proposing laws penalizing the pseudo-service dog. Meanwhile, national parks are allowed to close an area to service animals if it is determined that the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of people or wildlife. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks both require that service dogs be registered with the backcountry office. The owner is schooled on trail etiquette, and search-and-rescue is alerted.

Rangers say that they never used to see dogs; now they deal with them 20 to 30 percent of the time. A dog owner may be ticketed if the dog is off-leash, barking or defecating on the trail—but not for lying about the dog’s status.

Mule wranglers at Grand Canyon say mules will attack a dog. On a narrow trail with a cliff on one side, this is not a good scenario. One wrangler says the half-dozen dog owners she has met cooperated in moving their dog out of sight; still, they’re a hazard.

Make no mistake: There are those for whom having their dog along can be a matter of life and death. When a legitimate service dog is on the trail, the owner usually sets a realistic itinerary and avoids extreme temperatures. But they often leave the dog home, because they do not want their animal exposed to danger or put under stress.

So what, you might ask, is the harm to a national park if a true or faux service dog is well-behaved while it’s there? Badly behaved teenagers surely do more damage to the wilderness than dogs; after all, dogs don’t spray paint their name on the rocks.

For me, it’s the lack of respect for a park’s rules that gets my goat—the notion that rules apply to other people, but not to me.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 is landmark legislation that prevents discrimination on the basis of disability and requires public accommodations for the disabled.

However, the act includes loopholes and flaws, as is the case with many good laws.

In most states, the Americans With Disabilities Act allows people to file a lawsuit against a business that does not meet disability regulations; however, the only result is that the business must remedy the violation(s).

That’s not the case in California. Due to the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1959, those with disabilities can file lawsuits and receive monetary damages. According to the California Bar Association, ADA lawsuits in the state represent nearly half of the ADA litigation nationwide.

In Palm Springs, it appears that a couple of individuals and their attorneys are taking advantage of these facts.

A woman by the name of Diane Cross, represented by San Diego attorney David Wakefield, has recently filed various ADA lawsuits in the Coachella Valley—mostly against small hoteliers in Palm Springs, although she is also suing Airport Quick Car Wash in Palm Springs, and Villa Bakery in Cathedral City.

Another man, Chris Langer, represented by another San Diego attorney, Mark Potter, is also filing local ADA lawsuits.

John-Michael Cooper, president of the Small Hotels of Palm Springs (SHoPS) and the general manager of the Palm Springs Rendezvous hotel, said some small hoteliers in the organization all of a sudden started getting served with lawsuits in the spring.

“In the span of seven days, three different member hotels e-mailed in the same loop, asking, ‘Has anyone else been served for their parking lots?’” Cooper said. “It was then that … we started realizing it was the same lawyer and the same plaintiff.”

Cooper said the hoteliers banded together to figure out how to address the lawsuits—and head off future litigation.

“Once we realized this wasn’t just a fluke or … just one person out of compliance, we realized anyone could be threatened by this,” he said.

Representatives from various hotels attended a meeting that included Palm Springs City Attorney Douglas Holland, Cooper said. Also in attendance at that SHoPS meeting was Palm Springs City Councilwoman Ginny Foat, who has been sued because of an alleged ADA violation at interior-design store Trend House, which is on her property. Cooper said they soon realized the plaintiffs and their attorneys were apparently using certain tactics on multiple businesses, such as calling and inquiring about handicapped parking spaces—and then driving by if there was any hesitation regarding the answer.

As of this writing, lawsuits have been opened against businesses including the Garden Vista Hotel, the Desert Lodge, Hotel California and Casa Cody. The Hyatt Palm Springs, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Ace Hotel are also being sued.

Is there any merit to the claims of discrimination mentioned in the lawsuits of Diane Cross and Chris Langer? The answer to that question depends on who is asked.

Frank Tysen (right), the owner of Casa Cody, said he had just been served regarding a suit filed by Chris Langer when the Independent reached out to him.

Many of the lawsuits cite a lack of adequate handicapped parking spaces. Tysen took me outside of the Casa Cody with a tape measure and showed me that his parking spaces are just more than 14 feet in length. It would be almost impossible for him to make the spaces any longer: Cahuilla Road runs right up to the curb of the parking lot at his historic hotel.

“In order to have full legal parking for a handicapped space, you have to have about 18 feet,” Tysen said. “Because of the street width here, we don’t even have that much space in the parking lot.”

Tysen expressed concern about the harm these lawsuits could have on small hotels in Palm Springs.

“It’s a total racket,” Tysen said. “If the only way you can get compliance is to sue someone, that’s crazy.

“These guys have been doing this for a long time. They hit San Diego and other places, and now they’re hitting Palm Springs. It’s the same people and the same attorneys. They don’t even pay the filing fee, claiming they don’t even have the money to pay the filing fee. The point with that is if you don’t have the money to pay the filing fee, you probably don’t have $200 to stay in a hotel, so the whole thing is bullshit.”

A trip to Riverside County Superior Court in Indio revealed that, sure enough, the filing fee—which is generally around $400—was waived in many, if not all, of these cases.

Diane Cross’ attorney, David Wakefield, did not respond to several inquiries via phone and e-mail from the Independent. Mark Potter also did not respond to the Independent.

Tysen explained that many of the older hotels in Palm Springs fall under the question of what’s considered “readily achievable” when it comes to ADA accessibility.

“Palm Springs is a perfect place for these people to go crazy because a lot of the places are older and grandfathered in by the city. For instance, they don’t require fences around the pool, because they weren’t there—but if you remodel your pool, you have to put a fence around it,” he said. “The second thing is a lot of our places are historic; the way these places are laid out … the city doesn’t bring them up to code, because you can’t, or you’ll end up destroying the whole place.”

John Pinkney, of the law firm Slovak Baron Empey Murphy and Pinkney, is representing many of the small hoteliers, at a reduced fee, in these ADA suits. He confirmed that “readily achievable” is often a good ADA defense—but that does not mean older or historic hotels are exempt from ADA requirements.

“There’s really not, per se, a grandfathering clause for these properties,” Pinkney said. “But some of these historic places … there is a defense available for them where they can demonstrate compliance would not be readily achievable. For instance, if you had a hotel that was built in the ’30s, in order to make it compliant, you’d have to completely rebuild it. We do have cases where we’ve raised those defenses.

“I think some people think, ‘I bought an older hotel; therefore, I’m immune from being sued.’ That’s really not the case.”

Pinkney also defended the Americans With Disabilities Act, even if some plaintiffs and their attorneys may be taking advantage of it in California.

“The ADA is well intentioned,” Pinkney said. “It’s obviously important to provide equal access for those with disabilities within the parameters of the ADA. Unfortunately, there are people out there who are gaming the system. I think that’s where small-business owners, who are struggling to make ends meet, especially during the lean summer months, are dealing with ‘drive-by lawsuits.’”

Lena Wade, an attorney who is working with Pinkney, mentioned that she has seen up to 30 lawsuits filed in one day by one plaintiff. 

“So were they going to stay in all 30 hotels that day?” Pinkney quipped.

Pinkney said plaintiffs need to prove that they at least planned on going to a business that’s allegedly not ADA-compliant.

“You have individuals who are filing multiple lawsuits against hotels claiming that they were going to go and stay at that hotel, but they were denied equal access. Some of these are clearly ‘drive-by lawsuits,’ where somebody just drove by the facility, and noticed that there was not a specific placard that should have been there. Then they file the lawsuit and allege—under penalty of perjury—that they had the intent to stay at that hotel.”

Pinkney said that even if a small hotel can not “readily achieve” all ADA rules, that doesn’t mean the hotel is discriminating against a handicapped person or denying them service.

“If somebody comes to their hotel, and they’re disabled, they’ll make reasonable accommodations for them,” Pinkney said. “They will go out of their way to provide them with equal access. … The people filing the lawsuits (often) never even came through the door.”

John-Michael Cooper (left) said he does not expect the hotel he manages, Rendezvous, to be sued. He said ADA compliance goes beyond having proper handicapped parking. The Hard Rock Hotel in Palm Springs isn’t being sued over a handicapped space, for example, but because the entrance allegedly does not comply.

“I have a handicapped spot in my parking lot, so I probably won’t be sued. I know my rooms are accessible, and I know the level of accessibility that I have,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of different levels of accessibility. Being accessible not only means that you need a parking lot with the correct ramps, and the correct accessibility to the entrance to the hotel; you have to have equal, if separate, access. The people have to be able to park … in the front of your hotel; they have to be able to get out; they have to be able to get through the front door, and they have to be able to get to your front desk.”

So what is a small hotel owner such as Frank Tysen supposed to do? While some businesses have settled these suits, Tysen said he’s going to fight.

“Palm Springs is damn lucky that there are enough fools around that like the lifestyle of a small hotel,” Tysen said. “I get paid about $2,000 a month, and that’s it, because there is no money left, because you have to keep upgrading the rooms or the hotel in general. Small hotels are really a labor of love. During the summer, the rates are sliced down to next to nothing, and this is why a lot of hotels have a hard time getting loans from banks here, because they don’t want to invest in a seasonal business. Big hotels here are supported by their chain, but for the small hotels, it comes out of the people who own it.”

Ron De Klerk, the general manager of the Skylark in Palm Springs, said he's opting to settle a suit filed against the hotel by Diane Cross.

"Obviously, we want to settle to get it out of our books and out of our head," De Klerk said.

He mentioned getting advice from another local hotelier who opted to fight a lawsuit—and wound up spending $40,000 in legal fees for a lawsuit that could have been settled for around $20,000.

“In his advice to me, he said, ‘Settle for as little as you can, because it’s cheaper than hiring a lawyer.’ It’s absolutely true. A good ADA lawyer is anywhere from $400 to $600 an hour, sometimes higher. On any typical case, you’re looking at about 20 hours (just to start). Suddenly, you’re already at $10,000.”

Pinkney didn’t offer specifics on the chances small hoteliers have to win their cases, but he echoed Tysen’s comments.

“People come here to the Coachella Valley to invest in this community and start a business. In some cases, they’re investing their life savings to start a small hotel, and they spend a lot of money to make sure their business is ADA-compliant, only to be sued because the plaintiff alleges that something was off a couple of inches, or a sign wasn’t exactly right,” he said. “It’s very disheartening for these folks, but we’re aggressively fighting these cases where we feel they’re unwarranted.”

There appears to be no end in sight regarding these lawsuits. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1186, a reform bill that was supposed to curb ADA-related lawsuits. However, the bill was limited. It reduced the statutory damages per violation in some cases from $4,000 to $1,000 or $2,000. (Of course, plaintiffs and their attorneys can also sue for attorneys’ fees.) It also banned “demand letters” that were sent to businesses that sought money in exchange for not filing a lawsuit.

Critics of Senate Bill 1186 say the law didn’t work: California still leads the nation in ADA lawsuits.

Some have proposed giving small businesses an opportunity to correct alleged disability violations before a lawsuit can be filed. Pinkney said he thinks that’s a good idea.

“There are legitimate people out there with legitimate claims,” Pinkney said. “That’s what the ADA is designed for: People who legitimately experience impaired access. … Situations where the plaintiffs aren’t motivated by compliance and are instead motivated by financial reward for themselves and their attorney—that’s what people find offensive.”

Published in Local Issues

When I decided to attend Coachella and Stagecoach on behalf of the Coachella Valley Independent, editor Jimmy Boegle and I had some concerns about my physical limitations. A back injury that I suffered in 2011 has left me with problems with standing and sitting for long periods of time.

While I was indeed concerned, I was confident that I was up to the task. However, by the third day of Coachella's second weekend, I was starting to really feel my physical limitations.

I decided to visit promoter Goldenvoice’s ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) Access Center, located in the lobby area of both Coachella and Stagecoach. I was given an ADA wristband, which allowed me access to the handicapped areas, where I could sit and watch each band from a comfortable distance.

One of the things I’ve always loved to do is attend concerts. It’s an amazing experience to be able to experience live performances by bands and performers you’ve enjoyed for years, and to experience new artists you aren’t familiar with. However, I’ve been nervous and hesitant to do since 2011, given the issues I have with both sitting and standing.

Government statistics say that about 20 percent of Americans have a disability—so how do you accommodate those who have a disability at a music festival?

Goldenvoice employees have been trying to answer that very question since they created the ADA department, and have been making improvements every year—from how they design the layout of the grounds, to how the staging areas are set up.

“It’s a never ending commitment,” said J.B., an employee of Goldenvoice who is affiliated with the ADA Access Center (and who declined to give his last name). “We are constantly refining everything in every aspect of the festivals. We’re working hand in hand with every department.”

The department has a broad range of services available for handicapped patrons.

“We cover everything from the parking lot and designated wheelchair and companion areas to sign-language interpreters on the stages,” he said.

While the ADA Access Center does try to accommodate each case on a per-need basis, they have no control over some parking-lot access issues, he said; that is handled according to the DMV and law enforcement rules, meaning placards or license plates are required for handicapped-access parking.

For those who have a disability and have been hesitant to attend Coachella or Stagecoach, I can say that Goldenvoice has you covered.

“Ultimately, I would say the numbers (of disabled attendees) grow every year,” he said.

He also offered an inspiring thought after providing access to disabled patrons over the years.

“(By) providing ADA services here at the festivals, we are opening up to a broader audience that perhaps never thought, ‘Hey, I could go to a music festival,’ and now they’re seeing they can go in their wheelchair and enjoy it as much as any other able-bodied person.”

As someone who sought services from this department over two weekends, I can say that the ADA Access Center does a good job. As I was leaving the Access Center at Stagecoach to go catch John C. Reilly and Friends, J.B. told me something that almost made me choke up: The department has provided services to terminally ill patrons who have told them that it might be their last Coachella or Stagecoach.

I’d personally like to thank Goldenvoice for providing me with ADA access; without it, I don’t know how well I would have been able to hold up and cover the festival as I did.