Wheelchair-user Seeks Right To Equal Access

January 02, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

HAMPSTEAD — It's been four months since Morgan State University Professor Marilynn J. Phillips told the Maryland Human Relations Commission that the County Arts Council discriminated against people who use wheelchairs.

And in those four months, Phillips says, the complaint has amounted to nothing.

"These things always seem to get bogged down in a lot of foot dragging," said the 46-year-old Harvey Gummel Road resident.

Phillipsfiled her complaint -- which says 87 percent of all events scheduledby the County Arts Council between April and December of last year were inaccessible to wheelchair users -- on Aug. 23.

In the complaint, Phillips said only four of the 30 Arts Council events scheduled between April and December were accessible to wheelchair users. Federal and state laws have made handicapped accessibility mandatory for all publicly subsidized programs.

The Arts Council received $38,000 from the state for events in 1990, records show. Arts Council Director Peggy Slater declined to comment on the complaint Friday, saying she had not yet received a copy of it.

It wasn't until about a week ago that Phillips received her first response from the Human Relations Commission -- a form letter confirming that her case had been assigned a number and would be investigated.

The complaint is far fromthe first filed by Phillips, who has lived with polio since age 2 and has used a wheelchair for the past two years.

Since the folkloreexpert moved here from Michigan three years ago, she has lodged complaints against the county commissioners, the Carroll County Bar Association, the Carroll County Courthouse law library and Western Maryland College.

"You know, the only reason Marilynn Phillips is complaining is because people are not using their rights as citizens of this county or this country," she said during an interview last week. "Access is not a privilege in this country; it is a right."

But it is a right, Phillips says, that is all too often denied to people withdisabilities.

In the complaint against the bar association and the law library, Phillips charged that access to the library was inadequate and discriminatory against people who use wheelchairs. The HumanRelations Commission issued a finding last year that the law library's level of access was unacceptable, and that it had probable cause to believe that it and the bar association were discriminating againstwheelchair users.

Wheelchair users can gain access to the law library only by being carried up to the second-story facility. No modifications have been made, pending an appeal filed last July by the law library and bar association.

"It seems that they are willing to drag their feet so that nothing will ever get done," she said. "And I'mashamed of people who think that way. I can't think of anybody in this world who . . . could not someday become disabled."

And while the law library debate continues, Phillips has complained to county commissioners that the County's Center Street office building also is inaccessible.

County officials agree that the building's accessibility needs improvement, but they don't think the county is dragging its feet.

"The County Office building was up to code when it was built in the late 1960s," said Ralph Green, a Carroll County code officer. "But with the changes in the law, it technically does not meet thepresent provisions. But just like with anybody else we find in violation, the county is going to have to get up to code."

Phillips andothers object to the inaccessibility, for wheelchair users, of County Office Building bathroom facilities. Green and County Public Information Director Micki Smith said the problem is under review.

"It has not gone unaddressed," Smith said. "I think Dr. Phillips has a good point, and we do have staff looking into it. Unfortunately, we haveonly so much money and so much staff. But (the first-floor bathroom)will be made accessible."

The lack of a bathroom for wheelchair users prompted the 11-month-old Carroll County Community Relations Commission -- established to mediate discrimination complaints -- to move its public meetings out of the County Office Building.

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