A ticket controversy at a local theatre company has sparked allegations of discrimination. The theatre is accused of overcharging for certain seats.
Matt Gausman says he had a front row seat to what he claims is an unfair and illegal practice.
"I was going to buy two tickets to a December show for my birthday," Gausman told FOX 5.
The show A Midsummer Night's Dream was playing at D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, a slice of Broadway here in the city. After all, it's a regional theatre Tony award winner.
But Gausman can't just sit anywhere. He's disabled and uses a wheelchair.
"I was born with spina bifida, it's a congenital defect," Gausman explained. "I'm paralyzed from about the middle of my knees down."
The theatre's Sidney Harman Hall has 774 seats, but only 13 are wheelchair accessible. He found two seats right next to each other for himself and a friend. One was wheelchair accessible the other was not. And that wasn't the only difference.
"This one here is $83. The one immediately next to it is $63," he showed FOX 5 on the theatre's website.
It was a sizable $20 difference in price for the accessible seat. He found other accessible seats too, priced higher than regular seats in the same row and same section.
"If they're going to dictate the price I must pay and that price is higher than other choices that would be available to me if I was able bodied, I find that unfair," Gausman complained.
Gausman believes the theatre's pricing for disabled patrons is discriminatory and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to the Department of Justice, in charge of enforcing the ADA, "Venues cannot charge higher prices for accessible seats than for non-accessible seats in the same seating section."
And Gausman says he was definitely being charged more.
"We're talking about a civil rights issue," he said.
The head of the National Disability Rights Network agrees.
"We don't believe that is appropriate and in keeping with the law," said Curtis Decker, the group's executive director and a longtime disability advocate.
The organization was part of the coalition that fought for the ADA's passage. He is disappointed to still see cases like this 24 years later and says there's no excuse.
"We're asking them to simply offer the seat to a person with disability at the price that any other theater goer would have in a regular seat," he said.
The Shakespeare Theatre claims the ticket pricing is not discriminatory, but simply a result of what it calls demand pricing. It charges premium prices within the same section based on location and popularity, such as seats on the aisle or with better views. The accessible seat Gausman wanted to purchase is in one of those areas.
"I understand theatres are coming up with all kinds of ways to try and increase their income," Decker said. "But they can't do it on the backs of people with disabilities."
The non-profit theater receives federal and local grants. This year, the National Endowment for the Arts gave it a $50,000 grant. Another $156,000 in grants came from D.C.'s Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
But regardless of whether its money comes from public or private funding, the 6-year-old theatre's Sydney Harman Hall must comply with the ADA.
"I think it's a willful disregard for the disabled community<’ Gausman said. “I think they should publicly apologize to the disabled community at large.”
A theatre representative had agreed to go on camera with FOX 5, but later chose to send a statement instead.
"We at the Shakespeare Theatre Company pride ourselves on offering accessible options to our patrons and persons with disabilities,” it said in part. "The Shakespeare Theatre Company offers accessible seats in all price zones for all performances."
That doesn't appear to be entirely true. FOX 5 checked its ticket pricing and found shows with no seats for the disabled at the lowest price. In June, for example, $55 is the cheapest ticket for a weekend performance of Coriolanus, but there was no ticket at that price that was wheelchair accessible.
The ADA requirements specifically state "venues must offer accessible seats in all price categories available to the public."
The National Disability Rights Network believes this just shows defending ADA will always be a fight.
"You have to be vigilant, 24 years later, that the promise of ADA really happens for all people with disabilities," Decker said.
The Department of Justice takes ADA complaints and reviews them all. But even in cases where there is a violation, the agency says it can't investigate or prosecute them all because it lacks enough resources.
Gausman filed a complaint in January after giving the theatre two months to change its pricing. Aside from an acknowledgment, he has not received any further response from DOJ.
He never bought the tickets. For him it's not just about the $20, it's the principal of the matter.
"They are placing their profit margin over what people have a right to expect and really what their legal obligations are," he said.
Gausman isn't insisting the theatre lower the price of the wheelchair accessible seat. If it raised the price of regular seats in the same section, that would work too, so long as the prices were equal. Given his experience though, he says it's lights out for this theatre and doesn't believe he'll ever go back.
Full statement from Shakespeare Theatre Company:
We at the Shakespeare Theatre Company pride ourselves on offering accessible options to our patrons and persons with disabilities. Both Sidney Harman Hall and the Lansburgh Theatre offer sign-interpreted and audio-described performances, wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, audio enhancement and Braille and large print programs.
Prices vary depending on seating location and popularity, with aisle seats being priced at a premium for all patrons, not because they are accessible seats. The Shakespeare Theatre Company offers accessible seats in all price zones for all performances.