Access Lacking In County

Wheelchair User Wins Cases Against 3

July 07, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

The Maryland Commission on Human Relations has found that Western Maryland College, Westminster High School and a Westminster health clubdiscriminate against wheelchair users.

In response to complaints filed over the last year by Hampstead professor Marilyn J. Phillips, the commission issued five separate findings against the college, high school and Leisure Health Spa. Those findings say MCHR has probablecause to believe discrimination against wheelchair users exists.

"I want to have anti-discrimination laws enforced," Phillips, 47,said from her Harvey Gummell Road log home. "I want to have the samequality of life as any citizen and taxpayer of this country has."

The Morgan State University English professor has been active in fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, and the five recentfindings of probable cause give her reason to be hopeful for more access.

Phillips, who had polio as a child, uses a wheelchair. She said she files complaints with the commission any time she finds barriers to access.

In the most recent cases -- three against WMC, one against WHS and one against Leisure Health Spa -- the state panel agreed with Phillips that "there is probable cause to believe" the schools and health spa discriminated against her.

Phillips' battle withWMC began nearly three years ago, when the folklore expert found it difficult to use Harlow pool during its noontime swimming program. Inthis case, the college has made the pool mostly accessible; however,the college did not tell thecommission or Phillips of the changes itwas making in the pool.

Since then, she filed complaints about WMC's Theatre on the Hill, saying wheelchair access to Alumni Hall mustbe arranged ahead of time, seating in the hall does not accommodate wheelchairs, ramps to the seating area are too steep and public restrooms are not wheelchair accessible.

In the third complaint, she said WMC's McDaniel Lounge did not have enough wheelchair-accessible entrances and accessibility to the public restroom was limited.

The cases were decided June 28. A probable cause finding by the panel means the respondent -- WMC in these cases -- can challenge the finding,can work with the complainant and MCHR to eradicate the probable discrimination or can ask to have the matter put before a public hearing.

A call to WMC President Robert H. Chambers III was not returned and college spokeswoman Sherri Kimmel Diegel had no comment.

In the case involving Westminster High, MCHR found the 1,042-seat auditorium had insufficient seating for wheelchair users: "There is thereforeprobable cause to believe discrimination has occurred." The case, originally filed last August, was decided June 19.

Westminster High Principal Sherri-Lee W. Bream and Carroll County Director of School Support Services Vernon F. Smith were unavailable for comment Friday.

The finding of probable cause against Leisure Health Spa on Manchester Road resulted from Phillips' complaint. In February, she said that "I was informed that none of the club's facilities are available to me."

In the July 1990 complaint, MCHR found probable cause of discrimination on April 1.

The club's owner, Michael Owings, declined to comment on the charges, saying they are merely allegations at this point.

WMC and WHS failed to respond to MCHR; Leisure filed an exception to the ruling.

Phillips' complaints have, she said, beendifficult on her. But she said it is important for people with disabilities to speak up.

"It's important to come out of the closet," she said. "It's time to stop being the 'smiling cripple.' "

Phillips said should WMC continue to ignore her and MCHR's pleas, she will file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Departmentof Education.

"Look, I hate doing this; I am a scholar, and I'd rather spend time doing that," she said. "All of this has taken time. I'm behind on a book, behind on articles. I shouldn't have to fight for access."

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