County facilities are slow to meet accessibility laws

January 29, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

At his first meeting of the county's committee on handicap accessibility, Dan Kober learned why the group he chaired was so needed.

He couldn't get out of the Arundel Center bathroom because it wasn't designed for people in wheelchairs. He could push the doors to get in, but couldn't pull them open to get out.

"I was stuck in between the doors," he said. "I just sat there."

Two years later, only two of the 120 county-owned properties completely meet the federal requirements for providing full access for the disabled. The deadline for state and local government to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was Thursday.

Though automatic doors were installed in the Arundel Center rest rooms, the building still is not in full compliance. "Am I worried? Yes. We are exposed," said Bill Anderson, the county ADA coordinator. "Could I get up in front of a judge and explain why I'm not in compliance? Yes."

Mr. Anderson said a shrunken staff, tight budgets and a voter-imposed tax cap have slowed progress. When the county opened its ADA office in 1991, it had a staff of three. Today there is only Mr. Anderson. And when Mr. Anderson asked for $1.2 million in capital funding last year, he got $250,000.

"We have made significant progress to comply," he said. "Good-faith effort from a legal standpoint gives us some comfort, though we haven't met the letter of the law. We've met the spirit of the law based on resources."

About 66,000 disabled people live in Anne Arundel County, about 15 percent of the population, according to the county demographer's office.

The county has allocated $1.4 million so far to correct problems, established an ADA office and formed a committee headed by Mr. Kober. The four-member committee has spent the past 18 months inspecting county buildings and parks for compliance.

Some sites required redesigned restrooms, which cost up to $10,000 for installation of automatic doors and wheelchair-accessible sinks.

Improvements are being carried out at the Arundel Center, the health department headquarters on Truman Parkway in Annapolis, O'Malley Senior Center in Odenton, Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie, South County Senior Center in Edgewater and seven of the county's largest recreation and parks sites.

"By the time we finish the current buildings, we will have addressed about 80 to 90 percent of the population served," said Mr. Anderson, though he did not know how long that would take.

ADA, which outlaws discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations, is one of the most sweeping civil rights law passed since the 1960s. Most portions of the law took effect in 1992, but compliance deadlines have been staggered.

Failure to meet the deadline could trigger a citizen complaint to the government body, a lawsuit in federal court or a civil rights complaint to the Justice Department.

To date, the county and Annapolis have not had been sued, and ADA experts said it is unlikely that jurisdictions with plans will find themselves in court. "What the government is looking for is a good-faith effort in trying to comply," said Timothy L. Jones, a Rockville management consultant who once was a project director for the ADA Watch, a group that monitored ADA issues.

In downtown Annapolis, compliance is difficult because it is a historic area. Streets are often too narrow for ramps to be installed and many old buildings do not have elevators, said Emory Harrison, the city's director of central services and a member of the city's ADA committee.

Vaughn Phillips, Annapolis' ADA coordinator, said the city has developed plans to comply with the ADA, including the rebricking of Main Street, the redesign of restrooms in City Hall and the development of a disability awareness day. It formed an accessible committee in August.

Many of the curb cuts on Main Street have deteriorated and warped as the bricks have settled.. To ensure that they would be done properly, the city had Mr. Kober, who also sits on the city ADA committee, approve the final designs.

The city does not earmark money for ADA compliance, as the county does, so it is difficult to determine how much has been spent, to make Annapolis accessible, Mr. Harrison said.

Mr. Kober said he hopes ADA will one day eliminate embarrassing situations such as the one he faced in the Arundel Center two years ago. "From a handicap view, it could have been done faster. But from a reality view, it couldn't have been done faster," said Mr. Kober. "It should have not taken a federal law. The county is doing a great job. Could they have done it earlier? Yes."

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