Bishop Barber Champions Plight of the Disabled

Greenville movie theater violated his 14th Amendment rights.

By Cash Michaels –

It was the day after Christmas—Tuesday, Dec. 26—and all Bishop William Barber was doing was spending quality time with his 90-year-old mother.

Indeed the whole week had been planned out so that mother and son could spend precious quality time together that they normally could not, because of Barber’s responsibilities as a civil rights leader and professor at Yale Divinity School in Connecticut.

Bishop William Barber holds a news conference days after police escorted him out of a Greenville movie theater because he brought his own chair.
Bishop William Barber holds a news conference days after police escorted him out of a Greenville movie theater because he brought his own chair.

The special week was scheduled to end with Barber’s mother being presented with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest citizen honor, for her many years of public service. It was a trip to the movies, the new adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Color Purple, that was a special Christmas gift for his mother. Bishop Barber deliberately chose the matinee show at the AMC Fire Tower 12 theater in Greenville, NC, so that they would not have to contend with crowding.

But his plans didn’t matter.

Once Bishop Barber, a large man who walks with two canes, established himself with his requisite high seating chair in the handicapped area to watch the film with his mother, AMC Theater management determined that either the handicapped minister use the regular seating provided by the theater, or leave.

But the Christian minister can’t use a “regular” seat, he told them. It’s too low for the medical condition he suffers from. His special chair has accompanied him from the White House in Washington, DC, to the Vatican in Rome, Italy. Certainly anyone who has seen Bishop Barber over the past 20 years has seen him use his special chair without argument.

When Barber protested, informing management that his special seat is medically needed to help relieve a painful arthritic condition he’s faced in his hips for 30 years, AMC theater management decided to call the police to have him forcibly removed if necessary.

AMC managers told the police Barber was refusing to cooperate with them, and thus, was trespassing.

Fortunately, a cellphone camera captured the entire exchange once Greenville police supervisors arrived, and peaceably escorted Barber, his mother, and his aide who regularly carries the chair, out of the movie theater. On camera, Bishop Barber made sure he was clearly seen cooperating with the officers and was heard declaring that he was nonviolent.

He even shook an officer’s hand.

“They called an officer of the law, the AMC theater in Greenville, North Carolina,” Barber said on camera. “They would not make amends to simply do the right thing. But we’ll deal with it.”

Barber voluntarily, but reluctantly, left the theater with his understandably disturbed mother and aide, and from that moment began an unexpected campaign to educate all about the rights of the physically and mentally disabled in this nation.

For many people, Bishop Barber’s AMC theater incident would be the first time they would hear about the ADA—the Americans with Disabilities Act—a federal civil rights law (passed in 1990) “that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities.”

In Bishop Barber’s case, he was specifically protected because, under federal law, “. . . to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities … that they encounter in everyday life … businesses that are open to the public … have to follow (certain) requirements of the ADA.”

The ADA is broken up into five different sections called “titles.” Under ADA Title III, businesses serving the public, like restaurants, hotels, retail stores and movie theaters “… must provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to access the goods and services that they offer.”

In Bishop Barber’s case, because he required the special high chair that he brought with him, AMC theater management could have helped him decide where it would have been best placed to not only ensure his safety and comfort while viewing the film with his mother, and also the safety and comfort of audience members sitting around him.

Instead, they decided to violate the ADA, not even try to accommodate Barber, and call the police alleging that he was trespassing, even though he paid full price for his tickets.

The police would never have been needed if AMC management knew the law. Effectively, the AMC theater in Greenville violated Bishop Barber’s civil rights as a disabled American. The ADA did not require Barber to call ahead to notify the theater that he was coming, or what his needs might be. They were required to serve him sight unseen, as they would any other paying patron.

“As legally problematic as it is for the theater to refuse reasonable accommodation to a patron admitted to its grounds, it is amplified by the unnecessary indignity which Reverend Barber and his mother had to endure,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Morgan, a former state associate justice of the NC Supreme Court, in a statement.

During his press conference in Greenville, NC, Bishop Barber confirmed that the corporate head of the national AMC Theater chain, Chairman and CEO Adam Aron, had called him to apologize for the incident, assured him that the company had policies in place to accommodate the disabled, and planned to meet with Barber to discuss that and other issues sometime this week.

Barber told reporters that his responsibility now was to advocate for the rights of other disabled people. His hope was that his efforts would “… lead to just and good things for those with disabilities.”

“Think about all the people in your family, your jobs, your churches, your community who are different … but just like you were created in the image of God,” Bishop Barber said. “This is about plain ol’ simple humanity.”

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