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FROM THE GROUND UP : Help for the Handicapped

September 21, 1986|ALLAN JALON | Allan Jalon is a Times staff writer

Before an accident put her in a wheelchair, Rachel Malone loved going to the theater. She made outings from her La Palma home to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. On March 15, 1984, she caught a high heel in a pothole, fell and shattered her left knee so badly she will never walk again. Since then, the 49-year-old Malone hasn't been to the theater. Asked whether she plans to visit the Orange County Performing Arts Center, she said: "Probably not. I think most disabled people really want to go out, but they are frightened. With some places, you just can't get in without a lot of trouble." She then asked: "What's the center like?"

Activists for Orange County's estimated 230,000 physically disabled residents say that many of them are asking Malone's question. To provide answers, center officials met with staffers from the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled in Garden Grove. The organization provides services and training to people trying to cope with life in a wheelchair or those with impaired sight or hearing.

The session was attended by Margreta Jorgensen, a member of the McIntosh board of directors, who herself is confined to a wheelchair. With her came Paula Margeson, a blind staffer with the McIntosh center. They spoke with Dick Kitzrow, who is in charge of public information for the Orange County Performing Arts Center; Phil Mosbo, director of technical operation, and Aaron Egigian, who is in charge of the center's box office.

"I think that, overall, they're to be commended for having a design that deals with access for the handicapped," Margeson said. But she criticized the center for not having sought input from organizations for the disabled when the building was in the blueprint stage.

"It would have helped if they had gotten us involved at the beginning," Margeson said. "It would have been--well, it would just have been nicer."

As the women listened, Kitzrow told of steps that the center's management has taken to make attending performances enjoyable for the disabled. The measures include:

Parking spaces for the disabled in a structure linked to the center by walkways at two levels.

Elevators connecting lobbies at five levels--all with buttons low enough for anyone in a wheelchair to reach.

Seating areas for the disabled that are all accessible by ramps.

About 30 spots in the theater where seats can be removed to make room for wheelchairs. In each case, the management can place next to a regular seat a disabled person who comes with a companion who is not disabled. The wheelchair spaces are mostly at the rear of the orchestra and at the back of the first tier.

Half-price tickets on the orchestra level that will be sold to people with a type of disability that prevents them from getting to other seats in the house. Such tickets must be reserved at least 24 hours before performance time.

A box office equipped with a TDD, or telephonic device for the deaf. It is a telex-like machine that uses telephone lines and keys to reproduce a conversation on paper. The number will be published in newspaper ads for center events.

Earphones that pick up infrared sound waves projected by devices above the stage. The earphones, for persons with minor to moderate hearing problems, will be available in the lobby at no cost. For the deaf, the center may explore the use of sign-language interpreters for musicals and drama.

The women from the McIntosh center stressed that they will be able to evaluate the Performing Arts Center only after undertaking a full-fledged tour of the completed building. Still, their lively discussion seemed to pinpoint certain areas where improvements could be made.

Having amenities for the disabled was fine, the women said, but they must be advertised. "Do you have signs that say where there is handicapped parking available?" Jorgensen asked.

Kitzrow admitted that this might be an area for improvement, adding that he would look into the matter.

Margeson asked: "What if Margreta called up for tickets and didn't tell you she was in a wheelchair?"

"We would have to be informed," the center's Mosbo answered.

Margeson continued, polite but persistent: "Have you given any thought to where an interpreter (for the deaf) might stand?"

Mosbo responded: "Yes, the difficulty is that the signer can't be seen from a distance and people have to be able to see the signer and the action."

For Margeson, the thought seemed to be what counted: "That's great! That's the kind of sensitivity you don't see in the (state building) codes."

Kitzrow then asked the pair to suggest publications for the disabled in which the center could place ads.

Would the center seek ongoing input from the disabled, Margeson asked?

"Do you have any plans for an advisory committee made up of people who are disabled--any plans like at the Mark Taper Forum, where they have workshops to get the (disabled) community really involved?" she added.

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