Store solution raises issue with disabled Manager says concerns are valid WEST COLUMBIA

November 04, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

For eight months last year the grocery carts at the Valu Food Supermarket in the Harper's Choice Village Center vanished in record numbers.

Store manager Fran Gier estimated that 40 of the store's 102 carts (which cost $110 each) were stolen. Suspected culprits: neighborhood kids using them for fun and nearby apartment dwellers looking for handy laundry carriers.

Finally, Mr. Gier came up with a solution: a padlock was placed on a gate that allows wheelchairs through a barrier in front of the store.

The barriers prevent carts from being taken out of the corridor area.

Customers using wheelchairs, including children and teachers at Cedar Lane, a nearby school for disabled children and young adults with disabilities, were issued keys to the lock. Cart thefts dropped, Mr. Gier said.

But the padlocked gate has created a new dilemma: complaints from some customers who contend the locked gate leaves people with disabilities without the same freedom of access to the store as those without disabilities.

Mr. Gier, the store manager, agrees the complaints are valid and has asked Valu Food's front office to look into a better solution.

One critic is Roy Sawamura, a Harper's Choice resident whose 17-year-old daughter, Lynn, has cerebral palsy and is visually impaired.

Mr. Sawamura, chief of operations for the Prince George's County Parking Authority, said he was offered a key to the lock but turned it down on principle.

"My argument is this, if they can solve a problem with stolen carts, they sure as heck should be able to solve how to create equal access to the store. What gets me mad is the carts seem more important than people."

The padlocked gate also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Marni McNese, a disabilities specialist with the county's Disabilities Services Office. The federal law, which requires that businesses and governments eliminate employment, transportation and accommodation barriers for the disabled, took effect earlier this year.

"We've dealt a lot with shopping cart lock-ups. What it does is create a situation where the disabled don't have unassisted access. The store can't guarantee that every customer who shows up will have a key. It's not like a private club where you pretty much know who your membership is," Ms. McNese said.

Businesses and other public facilities can seek waivers from the Justice Department, which enforces the federal law, if they can show that they can't afford the cost of eliminating a barrier. Fines for violating the Disabilities Act can be stiff -- up to $10,000.

Valu Food never intended to prevent equal access to its stores, said President Louis Denrich. In fact, he said, the family owned operation is

looking for ways to make shopping easier for the disabled, including the addition of motorized shopping carts for customers.

But the company also must keep track of carts that are expensive to replace and that could lead to damage claims and lawsuits.

"It's a real balancing act. We don't want to cause any disabled customer hassles getting into the store. As for the carts, we're absolutely liable for [carts] that end up out of the storage area. We've been hit with a lot of damages from people who said a loose cart rolled down a hill and struck them or their car," said Mr. Denrich.

Mr. Denrich said he was unaware of the specifics at the Harper's Choice store but plans to review it. Most likely, he said, Valu Food would ask the Rouse Co., the store's landlord, to consider a new design for the cart barrier.

Features allowing easy access for the disabled in new projects don't cost much, said Mr. Denrich, whose 16-store Maryland-based chain is planning several new stores. But re-fitting existing stores can be costly.

"The range of disabilities is very diverse, so there are many specific situations you have to look at. But it's something society should be doing. The disabled shouldn't have to encounter any of the obstacles that now exist."

Mr. Sawamura, who used to take his daughter to the Valu Food store to teach her shopping skills, has switched to other stores. But he's constantly on the lookout for situations that may cause hardship for the disabled.

He's fighting a bank that has a crosswalk out front that he says hasn't been properly marked.

Several months ago, after Mr. Sawamura's daughter's wheelchair got jammed in a pothole near a curb cut at The Mall in Columbia, he sought compensation for damage to the chair. Soon after that, he noticed crews out repairing curb cuts around the mall.

"What people need to realize about the new ADA law is that it's like the civil rights laws," said Mr. Sawamura. "They don't create new rights. They address what should have been done all along."

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