Courthouse Is Wheelchair-unfriendly

Security Crackdown Leaves Handicapped Citizens Waiting Outside

July 24, 1991|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Dan Andrews wheels himself to the door, hits the button on the intercom and wonders how long he will have to wait under a broiling sun before he can enter the county courthouse.

In his mind, it shouldn'thave to be this way. This is, after all, where he works. This is, after all, the Circuit Court, a public facility.

But a security clampdown has locked his entrance door, leaving the 160-year-old courthouse in downtown Annapolis anything but wheelchair-friendly.

Since the 27-year-old paraplegic started his job as ajudge's law clerk last week, he's found the going tough in a building with no ramps.

It's a problem officials are working to solve -- with Andrews, who's been a paraplegic since 1982, prodding them everystep along the way.

"The whole idea is to provide independent access, especially to a courthouse, where citizens are supposed to be able to redress grievances and exercise their rights," Andrews said yesterday. "I'm not a supporter of any kind of doorbell or intercom system. A doorbell is not independent access."

Andrews, who is a clerkfor Judge Bruce C. Williams, is no stranger to the courthouse. For four summers, while a college student, he worked at the county State'sAttorney's Office. And before starting law school at the University of Baltimore, he worked for a year as a clerk in the courthouse criminal department.

In those days, Andrews could roll into the courthouse with little difficulty, using a side door on South Street. But about 1 1/2 years ago, new security measures were put into place, and that door remains locked. Now, only two entrances remain, and both feature steps too steep for someone in a wheelchair to navigate alone.

Andrews says he went to court administrators about a year ago to say he would be coming to work as a clerk and to complain about the lack of access for the wheelchair users.

"Their initial reaction wasn't very understanding," said Andrews. "It's really poor planning."

Court administrator Robert G. Wallace responded, "This isn't something we've been ignoring."

Wallace said yesterday about $20,000 is included in the county's facilities management budget to design and build a wheelchair ramp. He was unable to say when the project would becompleted.

In the meantime, Andrews and others in wheelchairs must get by with a system that Wallace concedes is far less than perfect.

An intercom system was installed about three months ago at the side door. Push the button, tell whomever answers you're in a wheelchair and want to get into through the side door, and they will come andlet you in. That's the plan.

But Andrews says those responding, be they sheriff's deputies or maintenance workers, sometimes go to thewrong door and leave him waiting. "On a hot day, rainy day, snowy day you're sitting there waiting and you never know if they're coming to get you," he said.

More often, he is simply pushed up the steps and into the building through the Church Circle entrance.

Andrews was scheduled to meet today with Anne Gibson, director of the county's Office of Disability Services. Gibson said a task force is now conducting a survey on the accessibility at all county facilities in an effort to bring these buildings into compliance with the law.

Gibson acknowledges the current situation at the courthouse is "very difficult" and she said she hopes officials can find an interimsolution that is "cost efficient" in view of plans to open a new courthouse by summer 1994.

Gibson and Wallace both said their offices had received no prior complaints about wheelchair accessibility at the courthouse. Both said that any plans drafted to build a ramp outside the courthouse would have to approved by the city's historic district commission, further complicating the matter.

Andrews -- brother of TheresaAndrews, a double gold medalist in swimming in the 1984 Olympics -- was a three-sport star at St. Mary's Church High School and a varsitylacrosse player at the University of North Carolina. But a car hit him while he was bicycling on Forest Drive, leaving him paralyzed fromthe chest down.

He's still active in sports, organizing an annualwheelchair tennis tournament, for example, but he's now looking forward to a career in the law.

And as he looks at the courthouse on Church Circle, he can't help but note that he wouldn't even be able tofunction as a lawyer in many of the courtrooms. The desks are too low. The judge's benches are too high.

Pointing toward courtroom No.3, the one used by his boss, Judge Williams, Andrews says, "If I wasa judge tomorrow, I wouldn't really be able to use this bench."

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