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  My Dr. Phil Nightmare
'Special' segregation at the Dr. Phil Show

by Angela Gaggero

My friend Shakeel is a huge fan of daytime TV psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw. He got four tickets to see a live taping of the "Dr. Phil Show." I went along.

Shakeel walks with canes, but he can climb stairs, so most access barriers don't stop him. We never thought we'd run into any problems.

photo of dr. phil

There are no architectural barriers for the studio audience on the TV set of the Dr. Phil Show. But there is segregation.

Before the day of the show, we checked out the Dr. Phil website. All seating, we learned, was "general admission" -- the advice was to arrive early and line up if we wanted great seats. Shakeel made us arrive well over two hours before the gates opened so that he could have a good seat. When we got there, we were 20th in line. We knew our seats were going to be great!

The Nightmare begins

We've been standing in line for about twenty minutes when a Dr. Phil employee approaches us and offers to take Shakeel to a separate waiting facility "because he is disabled." Shakeel asks if his party can accompany him. "No," he's told. Shakeel opts to stay in line with us.

Thirty minutes later another attendant comes and offers to take him away again. He politely declines again. Prior to the gates opening, a third attendant comes out, and basically forces him to go to a separate waiting facility. We feel uneasy being separated; we're also a bit embarrassed at all the fuss.

Shakeel is gone. The gates open, and the rest of us are ushered through the gates and into what will be the first of two waiting areas before entering the actual studio audience. There we sit and wait for nearly two more hours. All this time Shakeel is off somewhere by himself. We don't know where he is.

Eventually the soon-to-be audience members are ushered into the second waiting area, directly to the side of the set. There we find Shakeel and a few other disabled guests. We are happy to be reunited, ready to forget the separation, ready to watch the taping! Shakeel has saved the three of us seats. We sit down next to him.

Special segregation

Finally comes time to enter the studio. The attendants seat us -- the disabled viewers and their parties -- first. The seating in the studio is a half circle of stadium seats; we are taken to the absolute worst seats in the place. We are all the way on the right, behind a big huge camera. Dr. Phil will be facing away from us the entire show; all we will see is his back!

Shakeel had to sit in the special section for the disabled -- well hidden from the camera's eye.

We explain to the attendant that we can't see from these seats. We point out that we made the effort to arrive hours early in order to get good seats. Sorry, but all disabled people must sit in this section, she insists. No exceptions.

The rest of the audience starts filing in, taking whatever seats are available. The usher who segregated us is out of sight; we decide to sneak into the middle seats. There's no reason we can't sit there; even though Shakeel can climb stairs with his canes, there are no architectural barriers blocking us. We simply move.

The usher is back; she sees what we've done. She comes over and chastises us. She is rude; her voice is loud.. People in the studio audience are staring at us as though we're the ones causing a scene. Get back to "our" seats, she tells us.

We argue with her. We can stay, she says, but Shakeel must move back to the "handicapped section." Otherwise, we can all just leave.

We return to the terrible seats. We're not about to let Shakeel sit alone.

For the entire taping, our view is blocked by the camera. All we can see is the back of Dr. Phil's head. We have been pushed off to the side. We notice we are well hidden from the camera's eye.

Is the Dr. Phil Show complying with the law? They "bent over backward" to ensure that the disabled had seating. It's an entirely different spin for us on discrimination: "Get over in your special section where you belong, you disabled person!"

In all the years that I've been friends with Shakeel, I've never experienced anything like this. He was humiliated. "You don't want the red carpet rolled out for you," he explained to me, "but you also don't want to suffer psychological and physical isolation, either."

I suspect he will think twice before trying something new again.

Posted Nov. 5, 2003

Angela Gaggero and Shakeel live in California.

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