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UPDATE : Justice Department Team Sets Precedents in Disabled Access


WASHINGTON — A health spa in North Carolina excluded a man with cerebral palsy from using its pool and whirlpool but later agreed he could enter the water if he wore a protective helmet.

When the patron complained to the government that he was being denied his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Justice Department went to bat for him and convinced the spa's managers that the helmet represented an unnecessary, illegal exclusion based on a misperception of his disability.

It was one of several hundred settlements the department has won under the public accommodations section of the landmark statute, which has been in effect since January, 1992. A team of lawyers in the department's civil rights division, headed by John L. Wodatch, has been achieving victories mainly through formal or informal settlements.

The lawyers have the power to file civil complaints to force compliance with the law--and often do. Earlier this year, in a still-unresolved lawsuit, the department sued a large hotel on the island of Maui on grounds that it had failed to remove architectural barriers preventing access to its 540 guest rooms and cottages by people with disabilities.

Some outside advocates, such as Alan Reich of the National Organization on Disability, contend that the department has not won enough settlements: about 300, compared with 2,800 complaints received.

But Wodatch said: "We try to pick the most important issues and choose cases that will set precedents."

Wodatch said many hotels, restaurants and other facilities that serve the public--as well as government offices--agreed to make changes voluntarily after being contacted by Wodatch and his team. They include:

* The Quality Hotel in Washington agreed to pay a complainant $10,000 and to train all its employees in the law's requirements after staff members refused to permit a guest to use a motorized scooter to get to his room.

* The Hotel Inter-Continental in New York is making numerous changes in the next five years, such as improving access to the front lobby and ballroom, making elevators more accessible to people with vision impairments and offering closed-caption decoders on television sets in some rooms for deaf and other hearing-impaired guests.

* In Boston, Anthony's Pier 4 Restaurant, one of the largest in the country, is reconstructing its entrance for better access, putting in a ramp to the outdoor patio and installing a mechanical wheelchair lift to its banquet and meeting rooms on the second floor.

* A Denver restaurant accessible only by a steep flight of stairs or by narrow, winding corridors has agreed to prepare and deliver meals to people with disabilities who live within three miles and to advertise the service.

* In a settlement announced in September, Avis Inc. agreed to provide cars with hand controls for customers with disabilities. Justice Department officials said the voluntary agreement came after complaints were filed against Avis, the nation's second-largest car rental company, and 10 other firms.

Federal officials said they hoped the agreement would set a standard for the car rental industry.

No facility is too small to escape scrutiny. A Louisiana motel is lowering part of its front desk for guests who use wheelchairs and is equipping two rooms with roll-in showers.

Not all settlements require expensive accommodations. A Berkeley bookstore agreed to provide sign-language interpreters--upon request--for its poetry readings.

And a Texas movie theater has changed its "no outside food" policy after it prevented a woman from bringing in cookies for her diabetic child. The theater now makes exceptions in cases of medical need.

And several cities, including Los Angeles, have entered into settlements with the Justice Department to improve service on their 911 emergency numbers for residents who are deaf, hard of hearing or who have speech impairments.

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