By Ben Joravsky

Richard Meeker parks his van each day in the employee lot of Chicago’s 911 emergency center on the near west side and swings himself into his wheelchair. Gripping the wheels, he begins to push. There’s a disabled entrance between the van and Madison Street, and Meeker is pushing toward it. But he rolls past that entrance, through the gate in the wrought-iron fence that rings the parking lot, and onto Madison’s narrow sidewalk. The rest of the trip is uphill, a quarter of a block, and Meeker has to push furiously to get to the center’s front door, taking care that his wheelchair doesn’t veer off into the street.

That disabled entrance behind him? The city keeps it locked. Always has.

“This is insane. Why have a disabled entrance if you’re not going to let the disabled use it?” asks another 911-center employee, who’s watching Meeker struggle up the sidewalk. “You have to be a cruel, heartless bastard to treat people like this.”

The city won’t say why the door’s locked, on the grounds that the issue’s in court. In 1998 Meeker filed a federal lawsuit that accuses the city of “refusing to accommodate [him] by permitting handicapped accessibility to the work place immediately adjacent to the parking space” and of “failing to provide [him] with a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for failing to promote him.” He’s seeking unspecified damages for the “loss of pay he would have earned had he been…promoted” and for “physical pain and suffering [and] mental and emotional distress, humiliation, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of life.”

In some respects, Meeker’s an unlikely character to be found at odds with the city. His father, Willard Meeker, was a firefighter, as were several cousins and uncles. “My father married into a firefighting family. My mother’s father and grandfather worked for the department,” Meeker says. “I wanted to be a fireman too. That was my dream. That’s all I ever really wanted to do.”

In 1974 the dream died. “I got into an accident driving an 18-wheeler just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota,” says Meeker. “It was a job I had while I was in and out of college, waiting to take the [fire department] test. I was coming back from British Columbia and the truck went off the road. For several hours I was pinned under the truck. They tried digging underneath me, tried yanking me out. Finally they got a big enough wrecker to pull it off me. They took me to a hospital in Rapid City and told my parents, ‘We’ll try to keep him alive until the morning. Get out here as soon as you can.'”

He didn’t die, but his neck was broken and he’s had to use a wheelchair ever since. “They predicted I would spend my life in a nursing home, but I was determined to prove them wrong,” says Meeker. “I came back to Chicago and started rehab. I remember the first time I was able to push my wheelchair. I could barely go eight feet. But I kept at it. My friends and family were so supportive. I could see how my accident had devastated them. I thought, ‘If there’s one thing I can do in my life, I won’t let them down.’ I worked at therapy as hard as I could. I begged for therapy. I couldn’t get enough.”

By 1977 he was healthy enough to go to work as a call taker for the fire department. “I worked out of the sixth floor of City Hall–I could just park in front,” says Meeker. “I enjoyed the job. It was exciting. I felt productive. I was helping people. When people called with an emergency–their house was on fire, they hurt themselves, whatever–they talked to me.”

In 1980 he was promoted to dispatcher and sent to work at the department’s south-side ambulance dispatch office at 63rd and Wentworth. “The building wasn’t accessible, but I told them, ‘I can handle the job, let me worry about the building,'” says Meeker. “My father and another fireman built a wooden ramp so I could get in–everything was fine. I had no reason to believe I couldn’t rise to the top.”

But he says that in 1985 he suffered a career setback when he got a new boss. According to his lawsuit, the boss told him “on more than one occasion [that Meeker] would not be promoted by him, or The City, because plaintiff is confined to a wheelchair.”

Meeker says, “I told him I wouldn’t take a job if I didn’t feel I could handle it.”

Over the next decade, Meeker says he had several run-ins with the boss and was passed over twice for promotions. In 1997 he hired a lawyer, Marty Dolan, having already filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that “despite my qualifications, [a job] was given to a non-handicapped individual…who is either as qualified or less qualified than I.”

In the meantime, the city’s police and fire emergency dispatching system had been merged into the Office of Emergency Communications and moved to a new center at 1411 W. Madison. Despite the center’s high-tech design and gadgetry, it was like a step back in time for Meeker. “They have a door for the disabled not far from the handicapped spaces in the parking lot,” he says. “It’s supposed to open with a card swipe, but from the start it was locked and my card couldn’t open it. I couldn’t believe it. I figured this must be a mistake which they can fix. But day after day went by and it still wouldn’t open and I still had to wheel up to the Madison Street entrance. I talked to the guy in charge of the building and I said, ‘Look, this is a hassle. I’m going way out of my way and it’s murder on my pelvis. He said there’d been a security lock for the Democratic convention and he didn’t have the authority to undo it. I’m thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute, the convention was in August and now it’s November or whatever and I still can’t get in.'”

In the winter of 1997 he formally asked the city to open the door for him, sending what’s called a “reasonable accommodation” request to police chief Matt Rodriguez. But Rodriguez denied his request. So he called Larry Gorski, who heads the mayor’s office of disabilities and uses a wheelchair himself. “And he says, ‘We’ll put you on the street,’ meaning I could park my van on Madison,” says Meeker. “I said, ‘No, the street isn’t gonna do it. My lift won’t deploy there because the street grade’s not right.’ He said, ‘It’s my decision that you don’t need to use the disabled entrance. I don’t need to use it.’ Well, of course he doesn’t have any trouble–he has an aide that pushes him around. I’m not that fortunate. Madison Street is sloped and the sidewalk’s sloped. And besides, it’s a snow route. What am I gonna do in the winter when I park my van and come back to find that it’s been towed and I have to pay $115 to get it out?”

Meeker says, “I’m not asking for anything special. Just the opposite–I want to use what they already have. But they’re killing me. In the rain I get soaked and then I have to sit in wet clothes for eight hours. In the winter the sidewalk’s slippery and I have to worry about losing control of the wheelchair.

“It’s a major stress and strain on my body. I sort of have to pull right and left just to keep the wheelchair from slipping off of the sidewalk and into the street. All the maneuvering causes a lot of rubbing against the wheelchair, until the bone rubs through the skin. I had to have an operation. The doctor cuts down to the pelvic bone and scrapes it to smooth it out. It’s very discomforting. I don’t want to have to go through that again. But it feels like every day I’m just aggravating the condition.”

He says the city’s been indifferent to his plight. “I had some lawyer for the city say, ‘Why don’t you cover yourself with an umbrella when it rains?’ I said, ‘Fine, I’ll hold the umbrella with one hand. Now, how can I push the wheelchair?’ She had this stunned look on her face, like she never realized you need both hands to push the wheelchair.”

City officials say they can’t comment while the case is pending. “The office is not going to discuss the specifics of Mr. Meeker’s case,” says Ranjan Daniels, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Communications. “The city’s very confident we will prevail. But we can’t discuss this. I’d love to talk to you, but this is our position.”

Dolan says the case could come to trial this summer. In the meantime, Meeker continues to wheel past the disabled entrance. “Now they have this rock statue on the plaza I have to navigate by, as if it wasn’t hard enough already,” he says. “I’ve dedicated myself to making something meaningful out of my life. But the city’s dedicated itself to making my life miserable.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richarch Meeker photo by Jon Randolph.