Meeting new standards that require buildings to be accessible to the handicapped may be easier for companies in Maryland than in other states that have less stringent rules already on the books, state officials say.
The proposed federal rules say that stores, restaurants, banks, theaters, hotels and offices must take specific new steps to accommodate people who are disabled in any way.
The rules would "further what we've done in the state of Maryland," according to Marian Vessels, special assistant to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the Governor's Office for Handicapped Individuals.
Maryland building codes mandating accessibility to the handicapped in new structures have been in effect since 1975.
The new rules, Vessels said, will require accessibility of all buildings, regardless of when they were erected, "as long as it's possible, feasibly and financially. Right now, people are not required to do that unless they have federal funds."
Kanti Patel, chief of design and review for the Maryland Building Codes Administration, said current state requirements include parking spaces and rest room facilities designated for the handicapped, elevators and doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, elevator buttons and drinking fountains that can be reached by people in wheelchairs, ramps that provide access to buildings and fire alarms for the hearing impaired or the blind.
The new federal standards, published recently in the Federal Register, would implement the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The law established comprehensive civil rights protection for people who are blind or deaf, use a wheelchair or are otherwise disabled. In passing the law, Congress estimated that 43 million Americans have physical or mental disabilities.
The stated purpose of the rules is to make sure that any new or redesigned facilities will be "readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities."
The regulations apply to all "places of public accommodation and commercial facilities," including everything from baseball bleachers to automated teller machines.
"We are living in a good state that still has a long way to go," said Gloria Carpeneto, executive director of the Maryland Center for Independent Living.
"It's not only so much employment places and other 'biggies,' but the every day kinds of things -- the movies and the roller rinks," she said.
"If you want disabled people to be really mainstream, it's those little nuances that are the 'niceties' . . . and that's what a lot of us are really looking forward to."
The law prohibits discrimination in general terms. The rules, scheduled to take effect next January, specify how thousands of businesses must consider the needs of the disabled in new construction.
Individuals and businesses have until March 25 to file comments on the rules. The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which drafted the rules, will consider the comments before issuing final regulations.
The rules would not require immediate changes in existing buildings. But if any portion of a building is remodeled or renovated, that portion would have to be made accessible to disabled people. Under the rules, a building could not be altered in any way that made it less accessible.
The rules are full of details. Here are some examples:
* Disabled people, including those in wheelchairs, must have full access to all checkout aisles in grocery and other retail stores.
* At least 5 percent of the tables in a restaurant or a library must be accessible to people with disabilities, and two-thirds of the eating area should be accessible.
* A new mathematical formula must be used to calculate how long elevator doors must stay open to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, walkers or crutches.
"Most of our buildings . . . already are accessible to the handicapped," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. However, he said, there will be some compliance problems.
Though many of Baltimore's buildings were constructed since the code went into effect, the state still has many old buildings, Vessels said. And some businesses say they fear the costs of compliance could be high.
But Lawrence W. Roffee, executive director of the compliance board, said, "We don't think accessibility is expensive."
Vessels agrees, adding that a company's resistance to making accessibility changes may be misguided. Many businesses don't recognize, she said, that losing a disabled person's business may affect other business as well.
"Let's take a restaurant, for example," she said. "I'm in a wheelchair, so if I can't go to a site, that means my husband, my family or my friends won't go with me. So, they're not only losing my business.
"Sometimes all it takes is a little creativity to make a building accessible," she said. And smaller businesses that may not be able to afford renovations will have an opportunity to challenge the law in federal court, Vessels adds.