Jeff Jardine

August 24, 2008

Drive-through rules vex Modestan in wheelchair

Don Talley said he just wants to be treated like any other customer.

The 62-year-old Modestan suffered a stroke in 1993 and relies on a motorized wheelchair to get around.

He is frustrated because the folks at McDonald's and Jack in the Box restaurants, both on Oakdale Road, won't let him use his chair in their drive-through lanes.

"They don't want me to get hurt," he said. "But I don't understand. It says 'drive-thru.' All I want to do is drive through. I'm just like everybody else."

In that respect, he is being treated like every other customer -- every other one who tries to negotiate anything other than a car, pickup or motorcycle through.

Except that at the Jack in the Box on Oakdale Road, someone must have misread the policy and will soon be getting a phone call from corporate. Yes, pedestrians and cyclists are excluded. But wheelchairs, scooters and motorcycles are welcome.

"If it has a motor, we'll permit it in the drive-through lane," said Brian Liscomb, a company spokesman in San Diego.

Officials from McDonald's corporate office in Modesto did not return calls.

Talley said he has been refused service even though the only restriction posted at the drive-through entrances notes their 9-foot vertical clearances. There's nothing about the types of vehicles prohibited.

"I just want to get some iced coffee and go home," he said. He claims the restaurants are in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act but isn't interested in taking them to court.

"I don't want money," he said. "I'm not out to sue anybody. I just want the right to be like any other human being. That's what I'm trying to be."

Talley cited other chains that don't reject him at the drive-through.

"We can go to Burger King or KFC and it's not a problem," said Talley, though it might become one after these companies' legal eagles see this column. Indeed, a manager at a local KFC restaurant told me that while the chain has a policy limiting drive-through use, employees routinely make sales to those in wheelchairs and occasionally even to bicyclists or people on foot.

"We've never turned anybody away," the manager said.

Many drive-through lines have sharp turns around the buildings, said Stockton attorney Mark S. Adams, whose practice includes ADA cases. Though most drivers go slow, there's always the one who doesn't. If a person in a wheelchair is bumped or struck by a car while in line, you can bet the lawyers would be lined up to sue -- and for much more than what you'll find on the dollar menu.

Second, the companies want to keep these lines moving, he said. After all, they are fast food restaurants, and customers want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Slow lines slow sales.

Is denying drive-through access a violation when the company provides access to its inside counters as required by the ADA?

The Oakdale Road McDonald's has the ramps and doors designed to meet ADA standards. Talley said he can maneuver his wheelchair into the building, but only if someone is there to hold the nonautomated door open for him. Otherwise, it closes before he can get his feet inside.

He prefers the drive-through because it's more convenient and because he sometimes brings his sidekick, a Boston terrier named Kota. Only trained service dogs can enter a restaurant. Kota is a pet, not a guide dog.

Adams said he can't recall any cases in which drive-through access has been challenged in court, successfully or otherwise.

Last month, a hearing- impaired woman in Nebraska sued McDonald's because one of its restaurants in Lincoln won't let her order at the drive-up window, which she claims violates the ADA.

She can't hear well enough to order through the outdoor speaker. She hesitates to order from inside the restaurant because she has autistic children who, according to reports, don't always do well in public places.

McDonald's released a statement that said it "takes pride in making our restaurants accessible to all customers, including those with disabilities," according to the American Bar Association Journal Web site. The statement also said the chain complies with all applicable laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ultimately, though, what makes perfect sense to the disabled person doesn't always mesh with the thinking of a corporation's risk managers and attorneys, or managers at the local level who deal with the public on a daily basis.

Talley knows only what affects him as he motors through life in his wheelchair.

"I don't understand it," he said. "I just don't get it. Where's the heart? I just want to get my drink."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.

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