In April, local fair housing organization Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE) held an event at Jungle Island, the tropical zoo park on Watson Island, to honor “housing heroes” who had fought back against discrimination. Due to being mobility impaired, three of the honorees required use of a ramp to access the stage in Jungle Island’s lavish Treetop Ballroom space.
But after the event, Jungle Island smacked HOPE with a shocking bill: $2,261 for the ramp the honorees used to get to the stage to receive their awards.
“Surcharging an event because you have persons with disabilities in attendance is illegal and just not right,” says Matthew Dietz, a discrimination lawyer. “And at a civil rights event.”
This week, HOPE filed an official discrimination complaint with Miami-Dade District Court against Jungle Island and the City of Miami, which owns the property, for denying rights secured under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's also suing the catering and event management company Ovations (recently renamed to Spectra).
A spokesperson for Jungle Island tells New Times the facility has since “purchased a ramp to have for future requests.”
“We value our long-standing relationship with HOPE and take such matters very seriously,” Jungle Island says. “In this particular case, our food service operator offered what they considered to be reasonable accommodations.”
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Despite hosting some 700 events annually — including for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and social and philanthropic galas — Jungle Island says this was the first time in its 12-year run on Watson Island that this issue has come up. The park used to be located in Pinecrest.
According to HOPE President and CEO Keenya Robertson, she was told in July that there would be no stage at all in the future, but rather that the event head table would be located at floor level. She was also told that Jungle Island will no longer provide temporary staging to any customers.
“Providing a stage to no one rather than providing an accessible stage, when needed, is comparable to closing a public pool rather than allowing African-American children to swim in it,” Robertson says.