Fourteen blind students and five adults complained last night that they were not allowed to skate freely at a North Baltimore ice rink because of their disabilities - a charge the management denied.
Police were called to the Northwest Ice Rink in the 5700 block of Cottonworth Ave. about 9:30 p.m. to mediate a dispute between the rink's management and students participating in a summer residential program sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. No arrests were made.
Rosy Carranza, a leader for the Teen Empowerment Academy, said the teachers and students came to skate about an hour before police arrived but were denied access by the manager. The manager questioned the size of their group, they said, then refused to sell them tickets.
The Northwest Ice Rink is a nonprofit organization that has been in business for 37 years.
Jackie Eliasberg, chairwoman of the board for the ice rink, denied that the group was barred from skating. Eliasberg said she spoke by phone with Carranza and proposed cordoning off a section of the ice for the group, something she says often happens for people arriving with large parties.
"They didn't call in advance. They didn't go through the routine that most groups do," Eliasberg said. "We've encouraged groups with special needs to come here for the past 37 years. And we could not be more accommodating. I feel sorry for the children because they could have had a good time."
The dispute lasted about an hour. By the time police arrived and checked out the complaint, the rink was preparing to close at 10 p.m.
Eliasberg said she did have reservations about the blind students mixing with the other skaters. Eliasberg said the rink has had blind skaters before, but never such a large group.
Carranza said the students refused their own section of the rink, wanting instead to mingle with the other skaters.
"Our program is here to teach self-dependency," Carranza said. "How would they feel if we were roped off in our own area - the blind area?"
Some students said they have skated before with no problems. Portia Price, 17, said the key is using canes, which alerts other skaters to the disability.
"Just because we can't see, that doesn't mean we can't do what normal people can do, because we're normal," said Price, of Baltimore. "We always have had fun. We've fallen like everyone. It wasn't a problem."
Students from across the country participate in the program, which houses them in Baltimore for the summer and teaches the children Braille and other skills.
Mehgan Sidhu, a lawyer who came to the scene on behalf of the students, said the rink violated the White Cane Law, which guarantees blind patrons the same privileges in venues such as restaurants and parks as other patrons.
Carranza said she expected that the group would file a civil complaint about their treatment.