Cloisters charged with bias against disabled

June 04, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

The state's Human Relations Commission has charged that the Baltimore Children's Museum at the Cloisters discriminates against the disabled because people in wheelchairs have no access to exhibits.

The commission's finding, if upheld at a state administrative hearing, could force the museum to close temporarily, according to Beatrice E. Taylor, the museum's executive director.

It also could trigger a $500 fine and delay a state grant for the city-run museum, a hilltop mansion on Falls Road in the Brooklandville section of Baltimore County.

The commission's charges, filed Tuesday with an administrative law judge, are based on a discrimination complaint made nearly four years ago by Marilynn J. Phillips, a disability rights activist who uses a wheelchair.

Ms. Phillips said she filed the complaint after learning she could not visit the museum's exhibits -- on the second and third floors -- because the only access to them was up a spiral staircase.

"Their idea of equal treatment for a [disabled] child is to bring down a stamp from the post office exhibit," she said. "This is an obscenity. It's utter nonsense.

"No one would tolerate asking a black child or a female child to endure this kind of curbside service," said Ms. Phillips, an associate professor of English at Morgan State University.

The museum's policy of bringing a few exhibit items downstairs to visiting children in wheelchairs "is obvious segregation from the nonhandicapped children," Kathy Britton-Bracey, assistant attorney general for the commission, said in a recent letter to the city. The museum has refused to move exhibits to the first floor because that area is rented out for social functions, she said.

Ms. Taylor declined to comment on the commission's charges but said the museum's board of directors will meet June 13 to discuss options. Closing the museum until it moves to Market Place downtown by late 1996 or early 1997 "could be an option," she said.

"We are very concerned about being handicapped-accessible," she said. "It's a goal of ours, and it's a high value for us, and that's something we're grappling with."

One reason the museum plans to move downtown, she said, is to accommodate the disabled. In the past year, she said, the museum has built restrooms and a building entrance that are accessible to the disabled, although exhibits are not accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The Human Relations Commission asked the state administrative law judge to order the museum to make its exhibits accessible to the disabled and to write a policy involving the disabled, Ms. Britton-Bracey said.

The commission also asked the judge to assess the museum $500 in civil penalties and to order the museum's staff to undergo sensitivity training about dealing with the disabled.

"My hope would be that [the museum] would not have to close but would simply comply [with state law] by putting in an elevator or moving exhibits downstairs," Ms. Britton-Bracey said.

If the museum is found to discriminate against the disabled, the Maryland Arts Council could delay its grant until exhibits are made accessible to people using wheelchairs. Last year, the museum received $23,000 from the council, said council spokeswoman Andrea Thomas.

The council has yet to discuss the charges against the museum, but Ms. Thomas said no arts organization may receive a state arts grant unless it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bars discrimination against the handicapped.

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