I was alternately pleased and dismayed as I read the two articles (The Carroll County Sun, July 14, "Inaccessible quarters lead council to take show on road" and "Small businesses must meet disabled needs by 1993") addressing handicapped accessibility.
As a disability rights activist, I was impressed by the moral position taken by the Westminster City Council not to hold public meetings at City Hall "because it's not handicapped accessible."
Although the council's action may have been inspired by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 last summer (to be in full effect in January 1993), the fact that holding meetings at inaccessible locations is "morally untenable to some council members" is encouraging and commendable.
Of course, it should be noted that earlier federal and state laws (including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, known as 504) required accommodations for persons with disabilities by any agency receiving federal funds. Indeed, even Article 49B of the Maryland Code requires handicapped access to public accommodations (whether private or public).
Unfortunately, many of these lawshave not been enforced.
Therefore, it is conceivable that the Westminster City Council has, for decades, been in violation of these regulations.
Nonetheless, that's "water under the bridge," and, assuming the council continues to take this position on equal access for all citizens, I applaud it.
May I also suggest that accessibility be understood to include not only the removal of barriers such as narrow doorways and steps, but also the provision of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and the availability of American Sign Language interpreters, as well as large-print and Braille materials.
Since Western Maryland College is a center for deaf education (although, ironically,WMC is not yet an accessible campus -- despite its receipt of federal and state funds), finding qualified ASL interpreters should be relatively easy. Also, given the new technology available for producing large-print and Braille materials -- perhaps available through the Carroll County Board of Education -- visually impaired and blind personsshould also have access to council agendas, minutes, and so on.
The article, "Small businesses must meet disabled needs by 1993," is less encouraging. According to that report, attorney Jay R. Fries recently told members of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce that the Americans with Disabilities Act "is going to present some rigorous challenges to businesses"; requires that businesses "are definitely going to have to go out of (their) way to accommodate people with disabilities"; and is "going to be a very difficult process."
Apparently, attorney Fries presented the ADA as "so complicated" that R. Wayne Barnes, vice president of the chamber, worried that an employer will "have to be a technician in order to comply with all the rules and regulations."
Whew! How depressing! And, how very, very misleading.
I am not an attorney, but I have been following the development ofADA since it was first officially proposed to Congress in 1988. The 1990 Act, by and large, favors business -- despite attorney Fries' discouraging (and disparaging) view. The ADA simply provides two basic human rights for persons with disabilities: the right to employment and the right to access.
With reference to access, it is my impression that most Carroll County businesses currently not accessible can easily and inexpensively comply with ADA requirements.
My recommendations to businesses:
* Don't pay "caviar" prices for a good ol' American "hamburger" ramp. Find a specialist in barrier-free architecture (not just any architect) for creative and inexpensive solutions to access problems. Also, free technical advice is available from thefederal government (1-800-USA-ABLE) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (brochures available at the chamber's offices), among others.
* To avoid costly mistakes, do not ask "any" disabled person or relative of a disabled person for accessibility advice. Some may be experts, but most are unaware of specific federal and state codes. But Mike Maring and Dick Owings are continually upgrading their expertise in accessibility problem-solving -- and they're right here in Carroll County at the Department of Permits and Regulations.
* Use common sense -- and the numerous resources on adaptive technology available through public agencies and the library. For example, if you need to widen an interior door, will a Duromatic Door Hinge work in your case? (It adds two inches to any doorway, can be installed with a screwdriver and costs under $20 per set). Or after a contractor tells you that a ramp will cost $3,000, can you do it yourself for under $500? (We did!)
* And, if you must hire a lawyer to ponder the loopholes and exaggerate the trials and tribulations of ADA, first consider, please, that providing access may be cheaper than hiring an attorney -- and it may result in your attracting new customers.