Wheelchair dispute is settled

March 27, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Marilynn J. Phillips' 6-year-old quest to use the Carroll County law library is about to end.

Ms. Phillips, the Carroll County Commissioners, the Carroll County Bar Association and the Maryland Commission on Human Relations signed a compromise last month that will provide wheelchair access to the Carroll County Courthouse -- and the law library reading room -- for the first time in the building's 157-year history.

"I've said all along that I'm not going to use it until I can get there myself," said Ms. Phillips, a Hampstead disability rights activist.

In June 1988, she filed a formal complaint about the law library's inaccessibility with the Human Relations Commission.

"Now, this agreement means at least having a wheel in the door," she said.

Ms. Phillips, an associate professor of English at Morgan State University, tried to use the law library for research on handicapped accessibility in 1988, but found it impossible to negotiate her wheelchair up the 35 courthouse steps to the second-floor library.

She complained to courthouse officials, and they told her they could carry her to the library or have books brought to her in another building.

"I don't think they understood what that meant," Ms. Phillips said last week, recalling their surprise when she rejected the offer. "It's like being treated as a second-class citizen."

County officials hope to build a ramp leading to the courthouse's Willis Street entrance by the end of this year. They also expect to build a handicapped-accessible bathroom on the first floor. The building's bathrooms are accessible only by descending steep flights of stairs to the basement.

"What we're trying to accomplish is barrier-free access," said Jolene G. Sullivan, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, who also is the county's American with Disabilities Act coordinator.

"This will be useful not only to a person who uses a wheelchair but to people with other disabilities," she said.

The cost of installing the ramp, a bathroom and automatic doors is estimated at $31,850.

The agreement, which settled Ms. Phillips' complaint, also calls for the county to provide for a librarian to retrieve law books from the second-floor stacks and to bring them to the first-floor reading room.

Although the agreement was not exactly what Ms. Phillips was seeking -- she wanted a completely accessible facility -- she said it was better than fighting the county for years.

"This represents a compromise," she said.

In the agreement, the county does not admit violating any state or federal laws by barring access. The county also denies that Ms. Phillips -- or anyone -- has a right to have access to the law library.

Anyone seeking to use the law library who is not a member of the Carroll County Bar Association must get permission from Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr.

The county fought Ms. Phillips' request for access for years. In November 1989, a year after Ms. Phillip filed her complaint, the Human Relations Commission ruled that the county had "effectively barred any attempts at making a reasonable accommodation."

Some of the arguments against providing handicapped access were the cost, the historic significance of the pre-Civil War courthouse and the availability of "special arrangements," such as an offer to carry a wheelchair user up the stairs.

Ms. Phillips rebuffs such arguments, especially the historical one.

"If Carroll County wants this to be a historical building, get rid of the electricity, the indoor plumbing and the historically correct air conditioning," she said. "We have altered buildings to accommodate human beings. This is one more accommodation."

The agreement officially ends Ms. Phillips' complaint against the county commissioners and the Carroll County Bar Association. But it does not mean that the courthouse's second floor will be fully accessible to people with disabilities.

County Attorney Charles W. Thompson Jr. declined to comment on the agreement.

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