Restaurants among businesses targeted in campaign for access for the disabled

Group sues Cafe Hon and Bertha's Mussels

MTA named separately

July 31, 1999|By Zerline A. Hughes | Zerline A. Hughes,SUN STAFF

A statewide civil rights group has filed lawsuits against two Baltimore restaurants accusing them of failing to accommodate people with disabilities as required by federal law.

More than 40 people -- many of them in wheelchairs or on crutches -- gathered Wednesday in Fells Point to close a five-week statewide campaign by ACCESS Maryland to bring attention to the failure of businesses to provide access to the disabled.

As part of the campaign, the nonprofit agency has filed 14 federal lawsuits against hotels, clothing stores, banks, and the restaurants.

The latest suits were announced at the morning rally, sponsored by ACCESS.

Cafe Hon in Hampden and Bertha's Mussels in Fells Point failed to have accommodations for disabled people to get into the restaurants, including the bathrooms, dining rooms and bars, the suits say.

The suits, filed July 22 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, ask for no money, only that the restaurants comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I think it's important to understand we're not looking to shut these places down," said Philip J. Fornaci, executive director of Maryland Disability Law Center. "They should see this as an opportunity to make more money."

In a related action, the head of a Boston-based advocacy group for the disabled filed suit Thursday against the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, charging that bus drivers do not call out bus stops as required by ADA regulations designed to make public transportation accessible to the visually impaired.

Benjamin Haynes, chairman of the National Association for Accessible Transportation, had come to Baltimore in May to scout a location for a meeting for his organization.

Haynes, who is blind, said in his suit that MTA drivers announced only two of 121 designated stops on 13 routes he rode during his visit.

Riders who monitored MTA buses on four occasions earlier this month had similar experiences, the suit said.

The suit asks for an injunction to require the MTA to comply with ADA regulations, which require that stops be announced at transfer points, major intersections and destinations and periodic intervals.

MTA spokesman Anthony Brown said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the suit but said drivers were undergoing training in the regulations, which he expected to be completed by the end of September.

"I offer that in the form of explanation, not excuse," he said. "We are committed to providing service that can be used by all of our customers."

Businesses were required to comply with the ADA beginning in January 1992.

"We would like to think that they'll settle out of court," said Simon Walton, a lawyer in the Fells Point case. "We've filed these suits in the hopes that this will have an impact on all the other restaurants around here."

Most Fells Point restaurants, bars and shops have a one-step entrance which hinders anyone using a wheelchair.

Matters in Fells Point are complicated because the area is designated for historic preservation, requiring that few structural changes be made to the buildings there, according to Michael Day, chief of the Office of Preservation Services of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Before changes are made, even to comply with the disabilities act, businesses would have to find out what the law is and what kind of improvements can be done.

"We've always welcomed people in. There's a doorbell, and we pull out a ramp," said Bertha's owner Laura Norris. "Someone left a note and did register that they were unhappy, but they didn't leave a name or a number. I always respond to customer requests, but I was helpless with that one."

People at the rally, at Lancaster Street and South Broadway, carried picket signs reading: "We'd love to eat Bertha's Mussels, but we can't."

Said Kevin L. Beverly, who uses a wheelchair and is a plaintiff in both of the restaurant cases: "At Bertha's they send someone to open the door and they hoist you in, and then you have to sit in the middle of the floor. It disturbs the entire atmosphere. As normal as you try to make life, you still run into a lot of obstacles."

Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting said the allegations in the suit are false. Her restaurant often entertains disabled people, she said.

"I have plenty of wheelchair business," said Whiting, who has owned the Cafe for seven years. "I have tables in there that are a variety of heights, and I've measured handicapped bathrooms so that I could make sure that I could comply to make sure this kind of thing would not happen."

Among the other businesses sued in the campaign are Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, an Ames discount store in Baltimore County and a Burlington Coat Factory in Prince George's County.

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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