Court access suit due Attorney in wheelchair charges violations of disabilities act

'A harrowing experience'

Lawyer finds moving around city buildings nearly impossible

July 26, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Adding to a broad national push on behalf of the disabled, an attorney who uses a wheelchair is filing suit in federal court in Baltimore today, charging that it still is nearly impossible for her to negotiate Baltimore's circuit courthouses -- the very halls of justice where civil rights are to be enforced.

Attorney M. Gayle Hafner, who represents children in juvenile court on behalf of the Legal Aid Bureau, says getting in and around the historic downtown courthouses is extremely difficult, amounting to gross violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sometimes, she says, she has to kick the door at the handicapped-accessible entrance to the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse -- named for a local leader in civil rights -- so a sheriff's deputy can let her into the building. She can't get a drink of water or use the restroom in private. Stairs block her way to the court medical office where her clients are evaluated, and other barriers make it hard to enter master's rooms and judges' chambers. The narrow aisles of the bar library on the sixth floor keep her from using the stacks for research.

The suit, being filed by the Public Justice Center with the firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, is among actions and celebrations timed to the sixth anniversary today of the disabilities law.

This week, the Motor Vehicle Administration agreed to stop charging $5 for parking placards for handicapped spaces. The action came after the filing of a class-action lawsuit alleging the fees violated the disabilities act. Federal and state education officials will announce a grant today to a Maryland organization to conduct ADA-related work.

Mary Widomski, deputy administrator for the Circuit Court and its ADA coordinator, said she was taken aback by the suit because she worked with city planners for several years on some of the more serious problems, and had never heard a complaint from Hafner.

Widomski said the impediments have been money and time. "We are really working and we recognize their problems," she said. "These buildings are so old that sometimes it's cost-prohibitive, and that's a big issue."

The suit seeks an injunction to require the judicial system to develop and implement a plan to make the courthouses accessible. It seeks no damages for Hafner.

Hafner, 43, an attorney for 15 years, has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and depends on her wheelchair to get around.

Her typical day in juvenile court begins with a trip by wheelchair west on Lexington Street, from the Legal Aid office to the courthouse. She doesn't drive to a "drop-off" zone for the disabled on Calvert Street because it's too close to traffic.

After fighting a steep incline up Lexington Street, she reaches the accessible entrance but sometimes can't get in. One of the two heavy doors is frequently locked, which keeps her wheelchair out.

Andrew D. Levy, Hafner's lawyer and himself a wheelchair user, said the court's administrative judge, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, was put on notice of problems last year, in time to ask for money for improvements from city or state elected officials. He also said a study several years ago of ADA deficiencies in Maryland courthouses made officials aware of some of the problems. Kaplan was on vacation yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

"It boils down, as you know all too frequently in government, to money," said Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "I do feel for the disabled. I have trouble getting around myself. Whatever the law of the land is, we follow it to the best of our ability."

Lisa Pedersen, legal director of the Public Justice Center, said many courthouses across the state were still out of compliance with the ADA.

Neither Hafner's lawyers nor Widomski had estimates of what it HTC would cost to fix the problems. Widomski said some of the items could be beyond the city's reach, while Levy said the improvements would cost "a modest amount" compared with other types of expenditures made at the courthouse, such as an $8 million 1990 renovation of the second floor of Courthouse East.

That renovation did include some accommodations for the disabled, including hearing loops in courtrooms, accessible restrooms and more room around jury boxes to accommodate a juror in a wheelchair.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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