Blind skaters back on rink

Dozens had been restricted over safety concerns at Baltimore facility

August 07, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

Dozens of blind students and adults returned yesterday to a North Baltimore skating rink where - after further negotiations with management - they were permitted to skate without restrictions alongside sighted skaters.

Many of those students, part of Teen Empowerment Academy, showed up Tuesday night at the Northwest Ice Rink but said they were not allowed inside because of their disabilities - which the rink's management denied. Police were called, but no arrests were made.

Yesterday, representatives from the group met for about 30 minutes with the chairwoman of the board for the rink, who maintained her reservations about the group's size and skating ability, and voiced concern for the safety of the other skaters.

Jackie Eliasberg proposed cordoning off a section of the rink.

The group refused.

Eliasberg said she eventually relented because she had no choice under Maryland's White Cane Law, which entitles the blind to full and equal rights and privileges at places open to the general public.

"The law says that we have to admit them and allow them to do everything everyone else is doing," she said. "They don't understand the safety that goes into running a safe program. I understand they want independence, and that's fine. And I'm trying to accommodate their requests."

By 4 p.m. yesterday, the blind students, using their white-tipped canes, were navigating the ice, some with more ease than others. Their presence, though, disrupted some regular skaters, according to some parents who watched from the bleachers.

Kimberly Sachs of Baltimore said she brought her two daughters to the rink and was told that her girls had to limit practicing some of their skills because of the additional skaters. Sachs said the blind skaters should have taken the routines of others into account.

"It's very hazardous," Sachs said. "I don't think you should put civil rights above safety. You want to make a point, and that's great. But sometimes you can go too far. And what about the civil rights of the other skaters?"

Sherry Green of Baltimore, whose daughter was skating, said: "I've come to private events where they've cordoned off sections for inexperienced skaters. And the rink has provided instructors to work with those who need additional assistance. Nobody has complained, and nobody has said they wanted to be treated like everyone else."

John G. Pare Jr., executive director for strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind, said that since it was a public skate time, his group did not want its own section.

"There is a misconception that blind people need exceptional treatment," Pare said.

Anne Neber, 16, of St. Paul, Minn., said she has been skating for years and needs no assistance on the ice. Neber was part of the group that came out the previous night.

Students from across the country come to Baltimore to participate in the summer program, which teaches the children Braille and other skills.

"I was annoyed [Tuesday], but now I'm excited," Neber said. "It's cool they're finally letting us in, but they should have done this the other night."

Added Rosy Carranza, a leader in the program, "It's a big accomplishment for the students. We've demonstrated that we can go forth with the law, that we can gain equal access."

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