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National Perspective | CIVIL RIGHTS

Making Civic Life Accessible to the Disabled

August 22, 2000|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HINTON, W.Va. — When lawyers from the Justice Department came to Summers County, nestled in the green mountains of the New River Gorge, they found only three of its 17 polling places were even close to meeting standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Joseph Bragg, a 67-year-old would-be voter who uses a wheelchair, had all but given up on exercising his right to cast a ballot.

"I just don't try to vote," Bragg said. "A lot of disabled folks feel it's impossible to get to voting places and get inside."

Thanks in part to Bragg, who filed a complaint last year with the Justice Department, this 140-year-old railroad town and dozens of other, mostly small, communities across the nation are signing agreements with Washington to make it easier for disabled citizens to participate in civic life.

Ten years after Congress passed the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act to protect the rights of an estimated 49 million disabled Americans in public accommodations and hiring practices, many polling places and government offices remain inaccessible to them.

Until now, the government's primary focus has been to improve access to restaurants, hotels, theaters and the like. But Atty. Gen. Janet Reno says that "Project Civic Access" is focusing on voting places, courthouses, libraries and police stations in small cities and towns because "they represent the most common form of local government."

And it's an appropriate way, she believes, to commemorate the 10th anniversary this summer of the ADA's passage.

"It's certainly important to help disabled persons get government services," says Summers County Commissioner Lonnie R. Mullins, who is supervising installation of an elevator and other improvements at the old red-brick courthouse, built in 1875.

The county will spend several hundred thousand dollars--some of it from the state--to help the disabled reach the second-floor offices of the tax assessor and sheriff, as well as the single courtroom of the circuit court, Mullins said. Restroom doors will be widened for wheelchair access, and more space around the fixtures will be provided.

Even more important in an election year, Mullins is working with public schools and a privately run senior center to guarantee better access to county polling places this November.

Mullins said he will concentrate on improving access for disabled voters to the three polling places--a school, a community center and the Hinton City Hall--that almost meet ADA standards. (The others are considered too far gone to merit improvement.)

"At those three, only small improvements are needed, like ramps are too steep or doorways are not quite wide enough," he said. "Or a larger handicapped parking space might be needed."

Once access is improved, officials will work to arrange transportation to the closest location for disabled voters who request it.

Cynthia Jones, director of the San Diego-based Center for an Accessible Society, said that 20,000 polling places nationally are inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

"Polling places often are located in cellars or upstairs rooms, which sends a message to the disabled that 'You're really not welcome here,' " she said. "And some election workers without proper training have even questioned whether cerebral palsy people have a right to vote."

Some Web sites also are geared toward involving more disabled persons in political life. Abletv.net, the first Web-based global television network of its kind, was founded by Jeff Pledger, a Washington, D.C., phone company executive who is blind.

Abletv.net recently provided captioned coverage as well as commentary on the Democratic National Convention from the perspective of the disabled community.

Summers County, in addition to improving access to the courthouse and polling places, will experiment with "curbside voting," which is permitted by a new state law, Mullins said.

"You call ahead, and if no long lines of regular voters are waiting, a team of election workers will come out to your car with a ballot," he explained.

"You mark it, fold it and place it in the box, and the team carries the box back into the building. We also intend to remind handicapped persons that they may vote absentee ballots if that's more convenient."

In older communities like Hinton, public buildings often do not lend themselves to radical modification.

And, Mullins said, the money available for improvements is limited. "But we've found the Justice Department very cooperative and understanding of our position. They've been willing to work with us very closely."

Bragg, a lifelong Summers County resident, said he's pleased with the results of his formal complaint to the Justice Department. His action resulted from an upsetting experience at the courthouse last year.

"I had to go to court over some property I owned, and the courtroom is on the second floor," he explained. "A deputy and another man had to carry me up two flights of stairs because the old courthouse has no elevator.

"During the lunch break, I stayed put because I didn't want to put others through the hassle of getting me up and down. I skipped a bathroom break, too, because the door wasn't wide enough for my wheelchair."

But Reno, proud of the changes wrought by the ADA over 10 years, says she intends to use it to open even more doors.

"It is no longer unusual to see people with disabilities dining out at restaurants, working in the office, participating in town hall meetings, shopping at the mall, watching a movie or cheering at a stadium. That's because the ADA is making the dream of access a reality."

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