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For the first six years that he held season tickets to the University of Arizona's basketball games, Jon Faber never saw the tip-off or the start of the second half of a single home game, except on the two-inch set he sometimes took to McKale Center in Tuscon. Faber uses a wheelchair, and when fans in front of him stood to cheer, his view was blocked.
But last season Faber didn't miss a single play, thanks to a new device now in use at McKale Center. The contraption, Spect-A-Lift, consists of a 350-pound steel box—48 inches long, 32 inches wide and 36 inches high—that sits atop a hydraulic lift identical to those used in machine shops to pick up heavy equipment. On the lift's right side railing is a single lever.
At game time, Faber lowers Spect-A-Lift's rear door and rolls his wheelchair into its box. When the game starts, he flips the lever, and the hydraulic system elevates the box, and Faber with it, to a maximum height of 48 inches, high enough to give him an unobstructed view of the floor. (Spect-A-Lifts, by the way, are in an area of McKale Center in which they don't block the views of other spectators.)
Jerry Gary, the lift's builder, is a 53-year-old administrator at Hughes Aircraft Company in Tucson who understands the frustration of going to sporting events and missing exciting plays. A wheelchair user since contracting polio in 1945, Gary attended some Arizona basketball games in the early '80s. "I went for a while but got annoyed because I couldn't see and just quit going," he says.
Arizona officials were aware of the difficulties that handicapped fans faced and had tried for several years to find a solution. After a couple of failed attempts, the school's Center for Disability-Related Resources, along with a group of mechanical engineering students, hit upon a concept they thought might work.
With a $9,200 grant from Tucson's Elizabeth Reed Taylor Foundation, which funds programs and events to benefit the disabled, the university in 1989 gave Gary, a former machine-shop owner, a contract to build a prototype. After he tested it successfully at McKale Center during the 1989-90 season, the school asked him to build five more. Then Arizona held a lottery for disabled season-ticket holders to pick those who would use the five lifts, all of which were donated to the school by alumni.
Gary has started his own company, Ascension, Inc., and is trying to market Spect-A-Lift nationally. It sells for $5,000, but if the device proves popular, he hopes to lower the price.
Thus far, Gary has had calls from the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers, and from the University of Kentucky, Ohio State and the University of Oklahoma. And while McKale remains the only arena using the lifts, Gary's timing couldn't be better. In July 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. It ensures that all new commercial buildings will be accessible to the disabled and that existing buildings make whatever accommodations are necessary to provide the handicapped with the same services available to others. And last July, a regulation requiring that arenas provide the disabled with line-of-sight to the floor or stage in an arena or theater was adopted to implement the act. When it goes into effect early next year, the measure should generate further pressure to upgrade seating for the disabled.
Profit is, of course, part of Gary's aim, but both he and Ascension's marketing director, Richard Lowe, are sensitive to the hardships facing the disabled. "We've always had trouble going to games, church, concerts," says Lowe, 42, who is also wheelchair-bound. "We're trying to take our problems and find solutions."