PHILADELPHIA — Vermont delegate Maria Rinaldi said she was unable to sit with the Vermont delegation at the Wells Fargo Center Monday night because of her disability.
“I was really surprised to learn that Vermont was not in an accessible area, and so on the first night, I was forced to sit isolated in the ADA section,” Rinaldi said. “I was trying to have the same experience everyone else in my delegation was having and I was unable to do that.”
Last week, DNC officials announced plans to make the convention “the most accessible and inclusive in history”, with wheelchair ramps at the sites of the convention — Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Wells Fargo Arena — and buses with ADA accommodations for each delegation, among other measures.
The 2016 DNC has 400 disabled delegates, up 35 percent percent from the 2012 DNC.
Rinaldi’s experience, which she describes as far from ideal, may have stemmed from an increased number of disabled delegates. “It was a very stressful day, and then I get to the convention hall and I find out I’m isolated from my delegation,” she said.
Rinaldi and her partner, Mike Csele, spoke to Vermont Democratic Party officials about ADA accommodations as soon as she was elected to be a delegate. Officials at the Vermont Democratic Party were eager to help. They put her in touch with DNC’s Office of Public Engagement’s ADA & Community Engagement unit.
Rinaldi, who uses a wheelchair and has no use of her fingers, needs personal care several times a day. When she and Csele travel, they carry the items she needs — which include a hospital bed, and adaptive equipment for her hands — in a motor home.
“When we started with the process, the only thing I asked for was a parking spot in each convention center, and credentials for Mike,” Rinaldi said. “And somehow it became very complicated.”
When Csele and Rinaldi tried to secure accommodations, DNC officials told her that parking a motor home near the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Wells Fargo arena might not be allowed. Instead, they offered to arrange for two rooms in each meeting location with the equipment Rinaldi needed. When she and Csele arrived in Philadelphia Sunday night, they were told there were no rooms for her at either convention site.
The couple also found it difficult to obtain the correct credentials for Csele. As a result of these complications, Rinaldi missed morning and afternoon workshops at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“I know everybody is trying to do their best and I know there’s a lot to organize in something like this and we try to be as flexible as possible, but there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement,” she said.
The second day, she said, was a bit better because she was able to join other Vermont delegates to cast her vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I think that there’s a lot of people who wanted me to get in there, and I don’t know who made the final decision, but I was so happy to be able to sit behind the Vermont delegation.”
Rinaldi praised the attendants of the ADA section at the arena. “They were extremely kind and always asking us if we needed anything,” she said. “And they realized that we (her and other disabled people) were upset that we weren’t with our delegation. But it’s not their fault and you know, you can’t take it out on them and they did their best to make us feel a part of the convention.”
She also praised Vermont delegates, who visited her at the ADA section. “I was the only person sitting there who had delegates coming to visit them, which I really appreciated,” she said.
But Csele has a different view. “The only thing I can say (that was) well was our local delegation very much advocating for her — Dottie (Dean), Connor (Casey) really trying to advocate for her and getting things arranged was the good part. The DNC on the other hand, completely dropped the ball.”
Rinaldi and Csele decided to cut their trip short and head home before the last night of the convention on Thursday.
The DNC press office did not immediately respond to interview requests.