Disabled patrons sue three businesses They claim facilities aren't accessible to handicapped customers

November 13, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Towson Town Center, Westview Cinemas and a New Carrollton office supplies store were sued in federal court yesterday by three disabled residents demanding the businesses restructure ramps, restrooms and parking lots to make them accessible to the disabled.

The suits, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, do not seek monetary damages.

But similar suits could be filed against other businesses and establishments that the disabled say are not accessible to those in wheelchairs, says an advocate for the handicapped.

"We're really hopeful that in filing these lawsuits, other businesses will voluntarily make changes," said Dale R. Reid, a lawyer affiliated with ACCESS Maryland, a coalition specializing in civil rights for disabled residents.

The businesses being sued, however, all said they want to comply with the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act and would have been willing to do so without lawsuits being filed.

Yesterday, the people who filed the suits described why they took legal action.

Michael Maccini, 26, of Baltimore has been in a wheelchair since 1990 after a bone marrow transplant. He goes to Towson Town Center at least a dozen times a year but said he always has difficulties when he wants to use restrooms.

"The door is very difficult to push open, and once you get in there it's a very small, tight fit, and there's not enough room to get in there," he said. He also has trouble reaching the sink, soap and paper towels, he said.

Iris Helfritch, 53, of Catonsville said she had to maneuver her electronic wheelchair around Westview Cinemas for about half a block until she found an entrance that didn't have stairs.

Once inside, Helfritch, who has multiple sclerosis, was forced to sit in the aisle because no spaces had been created for people in wheelchairs. She said she spent about 15 minutes asking ushers and managers for a key to the locked handicapped-accessible bathroom. The combined experiences kept her from maintaining anonymity and independence, she said.

The woman who filed the third suit, Danielle A. Perry of Suitland, said she was afraid she would flip back in her wheelchair while trying to push through a gate on a steep ramp at a Staples office supply store in New Carrollton.

But spokesmen for the businesses said they would have made changes if asked.

Christopher S. Schardt, general manager of Towson Town Center, said he did not know violations were present in mall bathrooms until he received a letter from Maccini's lawyer in September. The mall will spend $35,000 to make the changes to men's and women's restrooms on the first and third levels, based on the finding of a consultant, he said. The changes should be complete in January.

"When we were made aware, we feel that we acted responsibly," Schardt said. "We're preparing to do the work. It's not been a defiance on our part."

At Westview Cinemas, lawyer Bertram L. Potemken said the theater had never received a complaint from anyone having trouble gaining access the theater.

He said theater staff will hang signs telling people who want to use handicapped-accessible restrooms to ask an usher for the key.

Potemken also said walls will be removed so those using wheelchairs can see without sitting in aisles.

"We try to comply with everything there is, and what we don't comply with, if given notice, we comply," he said.

Susan G. Simon, a spokeswoman for Staples corporate headquarters in Westboro, Mass., said the company's legal department "is unaware of any lawsuit or complaint. We do everything we can to comply with all laws, including the ADA."

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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