TORONTO – Throughout a childhood spent in and out of hospitals, baseball provided a welcomed escape for Joel Dembe. A benign spinal tumour removed at birth left him with partial paralysis, more surgeries followed and often when he was recovering, he’d get lost in the game watching his favourite team, the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I wanted to be a baseball player,” said the 37-year-old. “I thought, ‘Hey, I'll just recover from this surgery, and maybe one day I can be the next John Olerud.’”
By age 7, however, Dembe needed a wheelchair, so he ended up in Challenger Baseball instead. His aunt, Dr. Elaine Dembe, was the team chiropractor in the 1980s and helped grow his interest in the sport while his parents made him a regular at Rogers Centre, a habit that held throughout his career as a Paralympic tennis player and continues to this day.
That’s why Dembe is excited that the Blue Jays are planning to renovate the dome, although his wish list for the refurbishment probably differs from most.
“The number of options needs to increase for fans with disabilities,” said Dembe, who now works in corporate communications. “I know that there's quite a few people with different disabilities that love the Blue Jays and want to go to more games and simply are out of luck because I think watching the game on TV is probably a better experience at this point.”
Although Dembe is quick to praise the many current positives at the dome in terms of accessibility, particularly the ease of navigation to and from the place, his hope for better disabled seating areas is one of many under-the-radar ways the Blue Jays can improve the stadium experience for more of their fans.
The focal point of the renovation is expected to be the dome’s lower bowl and updating the menu of options there to watch the game. But from ensuring fans in wheelchairs can get more unobstructed sightlines of the field, to more thorough celebrations of the team’s history and better food options available to fans in all parts of the stadium, numerous tweaks can be made that aren’t nearly as obvious.
None will carry as much meaning as opening up more avenues for disabled fans to attend games.
Dembe’s travel during his period as an elite athlete – he was a three-time Canadian champion who competed at the 2012 London Paralympics and 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto – allowed him to visit several parks in the United States that offered a much better experience.
Nationals Park in Washington, for instance, was the last stadium he visited pre-pandemic and “I could sit in the equivalent of the 200, 400 or 500 levels and I'm not obstructed.”
“At the Rogers Centre, you are obstructed,” he continued. “In fact, the best seating you can get is literally on the concourse level in the infield. And depending on where you're sitting, if a ball is hit high enough, you lose track of it.”
The prime seating area for people in wheelchairs at the dome is on the 100-level concourse, directly behind the final row of seating in the sections ringing the infield, beneath the relatively low concrete ceiling underpinning the 200 level.
“I know a lot of people probably say this, but I was actually at the (Jose Bautista) bat-flip game,” Dembe said. “But I was in a part of the 100 level that's obstructed. The Blue Jays will let you know that it is obstructed but there are so few options (for tickets) because of how popular the team is. I just don't get choice or flexibility. And as a result, the fan experience isn't on the same level as that of someone who is able-bodied.”
In other areas, the views can be obstructed when fans stand up, or are difficult to move around. All luxury suites, for instance, are wheelchair accessible but the steps to each of the seating rows are a barrier to the best view of the action.
One thing done well both at Nationals Park and Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, according to Dembe, is that not only is there seating at the front of sections, but also ample room for wheelchairs to manoeuvre around and a better set up for pairs or groups of fans mixed between the able-bodied and disabled.
“My wife's not in a wheelchair, so if we want to go to a game, she has to like grab a seat, they literally bring a folding chair for her,” he explained. “In other ballparks they have permanent seating next to free seating so that I can just roll my wheelchair up and there’s much more integration among able-bodied fans and fans who have a disability.”
The concession stands are another challenge, although Dembe praises the Blue Jays for having attendees available to help carry food and drink back to seating areas. Still, if he’s not with his wife or a friend, cashiers sometimes have trouble seeing him from behind the counter.
What’s on offer at the concession stands is an oft-discussed matter and one idea the Blue Jays could emulate is an improved food-court area featuring fare from popular local restaurants. They did have something akin to that with their pop-up kitchen venture during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, with featured rotation of eateries at a 200-level stall.
The Blue Jays are looking at bringing the program back for this season, but a more permanent set-up in a more convenient location makes far more sense.
Another opportunity is creating a more permanent area celebrating the team’s history, ideally like a Blue Jays Hall of Fame, which would offer an enticement for visitors outside the city to attend games.
Space for a permanent display of rotating artifacts from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame could be included to create a more holistic space to pass along local lore, while a place for parents to play catch with their kids and create lasting generational memories would help strengthen connections to the club.
Dembe has seen all those things at ballparks down south and is eager to discover the scale and scope of the changes to Rogers Centre. He’s hopeful that some changes for fans in a wheelchair like him will be included, too.
“Overall, sport venues in the United States have prioritized wheelchair accessibility and are probably about a decade ahead of where we are in Canada, at the very least,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”