Mr. Accessibility

Bob Reuter is snarky, irascible and completely unapologetic. But he has also done more than any other private citizen in the state to make Baltimore a livable place for people in wheelchairs.

March 29, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Bob Reuter is a religious man, but he practically worked his way out of Roman Catholicism a dozen years ago before finally finding a church that could accommodate a parishioner in a wheelchair.

"St. Vincent de Paul's was the last stop on my way to becoming an Episcopalian," he says over lunch on a recent afternoon.

It is hard to tell if Reuter means to be funny or is simply stating a fact. Reuter is a man who strikes some as all edges, and jagged ones at that. He is not without a sense of humor, but his observations are often caustic and delivered with the snap of a karate chop. With Reuter, indignation is always on call.

FOR THE RECORD - An article and photo caption on disabled activist Bob Reuter in yesterday's Today section misidentified the courthouse in Baltimore. The correct name of the building is Courthouse East.

At the moment, though, he is all affability, nestled in a corner booth at the Hollywood Diner, the downtown restaurant famously featured in Barry Levinson's Diner. He has a white beard in the style of Lincoln, dark eyebrows and tinted, oversize glasses that magnify penetrating, gray eyes. He is wiry of build and often wears T-shirts with slogans related to the cause of accessibility. Today's is unprintable in a family newspaper.

In Diner, the restaurant did not have a ramp to the front entrance. Now that it does, Reuter is able to patronize the place. The ramp is what spared the Hollywood Diner a formal, legal complaint from Reuter, which distinguishes it from dozens of other restaurants, stores, parking lots, museums, resorts, parks and government buildings in Baltimore and across the state of Maryland.

Reuter's targets include establishments and institutions familiar to anyone who knows Baltimore: City Hall, the B&O Railroad Museum, the Cylburn Mansion, the Enoch Pratt Library, Peter Pan Bus Lines, McDonald's, the Woman's Industrial Exchange and the Maryland Transit Administration. Renown, though, isn't a condition for making Reuter's list. His criteria is blunt: Does he want to go in, and can he?

Patricia Wood, an attorney with the state Commission on Human Relations, says Reuter, 56, has filed more complaints on disability matters related to accessibility than any other individual in Maryland. Because those complaints are often upheld, it can be argued that Reuter has done more than any other private citizen in the state to enable those in wheelchairs to travel, consume, watch and participate as much as they can nowadays. If that is still less than the able-bodied population can do, it is only because other offenders have not yet intersected with Reuter's myriad interests and activities.

As it is, he hasn't had to strain to find violations of Maryland's accessibilty requirements - buildings without ramps or lifts, an absence of handicapped bathrooms or parking spaces, counters that are too high, aisles that are too narrow. "I don't go out of my way looking for places that aren't accessible," he says between bites of a sandwich. "They just jump out at me."

The next morning, a bright but raw Ash Wednesday, Reuter is back in front of the diner. He has agreed to give a tour of his downtown Baltimore, which in the next three hours unfolds as a survey of barriers, obstacles, oversights and insensitivities that drive disabled people crazy. Live in Reuter's shoes, says his friend attorney Harold Burns, and his resentments become palpable.

"I don't know how anyone keeps their mind being disabled without becoming homicidal," Burns says.

Reuter pushes off powerfully eastward along Saratoga Street. He wears gloves for extra grip and has equipped his wheelchair with snow tires for the season. He maneuvers the chair with the nimbleness of a street performer on a unicycle and at the pace of a fast walker. The effort hardly shows.

At the end of the block, and around the corner, he arrives at M.B. Klein Inc., the tour's first stop. Reuter has visited the model-train store since he was a teen-ager, but a few years ago, after Klein underwent renovations, Reuter found a stoop at the front door blocking his way. He complained to Ted Klein, the store owner. "He kept saying, `I'll get around to it,'" Reuter says. "I finally said, `Yeah, you'll get around to it,'" and he filed an action with Human Relations, which upheld Reuter. (In an interview, Klein later agreed entirely with Reuter's account.)

As a result, the entryway was regraded to provide smooth passage for a wheelchair. The aisles are also wider now, and the counters are low enough for someone seated in a wheelchair.

The improvements cost Klein more than $4,200, but Reuter doesn't care. For one thing, renovations for accessibility entitle businesses to tax credits (although Klein did not avail himself of them). And Reuter figures he is only helping businesses increase profits by enabling more customers like himself to patronize them. "I hate to think how much I've spent there going back 40 years."

With so many potential targets, Reuter picks only those he encounters in pursuit of his normal activities. That should be small comfort to potential violators. His "normal activities" would exhaust most 56-year-olds, disabled or otherwise.

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