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Pan Am organizers overturn policy keeping girl who uses wheelchair from having friend join her in stands

Alessia Commisso’s mother said she received a call Tuesday from Games organizers offering her daughter three seats together.
June 16, 2015
By Tara Deschamps

Pan Am Games organizers are backtracking on a policy that was keeping a 12-year-old girl using a wheelchair from sitting with both her mom and a friend at an upcoming swimming competition.

Following a Star story, Sonia Commisso, the girl’s mother, said she received a call Tuesday from Parapan Am Games organizers and Ticketmaster staff offering her daughter three seats located together.

It was a quick turn around from the message Parapan Am spokespeople had the day before when they touted “accessible seating capacity” as the reason for barring attendees with accessibility from sitting directly beside more than one of their able-bodied companions.

With Sonia’s daughter Alessia, who has Leigh’s Disease, too young to go to the competition without a parent, but old enough to want a friend to join her, the policy was disappointing.

Hearing that organizers would let her purchase three seats side-by-side in a wheelchair-accessible area, though, was “great,” said Sonia, hours before Alessia was due to arrive home to receive the news.

“I think she will be excited and thrilled. This will be a pleasant surprise,” said Sonia. “Friendships are hard, but being able to sit with her friend, makes her feel the same as everyone else.”

Organizers had told her that their policy was in place because accessible seating areas at the Pan Am/Parapan Am Acquatic Centre in Scarborough are set up with one permanent seat beside every gap for a single wheelchair, leaving no place for more than one able-bodied companion to sit.

“It is interesting that they made it like this knowing that this is a facility for the Parapan Am Games,” said Sonia. “I don’t think it’s the best way of doing things. I think it still raises challenges.”

Alessia and her two companions will be seated at the end of a wheelchair-accessible row, with her in middle. In future situations, where others might be seeking seats for more than one able-bodied companion to join someone needing accessible seating at the Games, Pan Am spokesperson Neala Barton said “we will do our best to accommodate, in cases where it is possible.”

The 1:1 policy for accessible seating is still in place to “maximize the number of accessible seats and to accommodate the venue,” but Pan Am staff and Ticketmaster are eager to find solutions wherever possible, she said, adding, “We were happy that the issue was brought to our attention because we wanted the situation to be really positive and we wanted everyone to feel like they can take part this summer.”

Sonia said she was “a bit embarrassed” that she had to appeal to the Star to get Pan Am organizers to realize the challenges associated with their rules, but said she felt she had to take her story public “because it is part of a lifelong journey of obstacles that I want to show Alessia she can overcome.”

In keeping with setting an example for her daughter, Sonia declined offers from the Games to waive ticket fees or offer her extra seats.

“I paid for the tickets and that’s the only way I would have it because this is not about being selfish,” she said. “This is about being fair and learning a powerful lesson.”