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Activist Fights for Disabled in Marin County

Paraplegic Richard Skaff works to ensure that laws requiring access are enforced.

September 22, 2003|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — When Richard Skaff, a paraplegic, could not find a good spot for his wheelchair at a Veterans Auditorium concert in San Rafael in 1995, he complained to Marin County officials. When he discovered the situation had not changed five years later, he complained once again.

Finally, he took his beef to a higher authority -- the state.

And last week, he got action. The California attorney general's office sued the county, among the richest in the state, for allegedly failing to comply with state access laws for the disabled. On the same day, the county agreed to settle the case by fixing the violations within six months.

None of this is new to Skaff. Time and again, the former Corte Madera town councilman, who is deputy director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office on Disability and serves on state and federal access committees, has taken cities and businesses in Marin to court.

In addition to problems at the Veterans Auditorium, Skaff, 60, has documented alleged violations at a county park, a video store, a pharmacy and a steakhouse and on a street -- all problems cited in the lawsuit.

"What we were trying to do is show the depth and hugeness of the problem,'' said Skaff, adding, "The lawsuit didn't cover everything.''

The attorney general said the county had failed to comply with a 1994 court settlement regarding access violations at the Veterans Auditorium.

"We found the county was systematically ignoring complaints,'' said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

"We are hoping other cities and counties will take note that we are serious about this and will ensure that local governments are complying with these state laws,'' she said, adding she knows of at least two investigations by her agency in other parts of the state.

Jordan said there are 6 million people in the state with disabilities, and it's "wrong and illegal'' for them to be prevented from going places that others can.

The state's access law for the disabled in public facilities became effective in 1970. The state law applying to private property went into effect a year later. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990.

Patrick Faulkner, Marin's county counsel, said the county denies the state's allegations, but "rather than spend our money fighting with them on specifics, we agreed to work with them."

County supervisors have tripled the budget for access for the disabled, to $500,000, Faulkner said. Further, he said, the county has spent more than $1 million over the last 10 years to bring its buildings into compliance with the access law. And it will hire a full-time access coordinator.

Skaff conceded that Marin County isn't the only area that fails to abide by state access requirements for the disabled: He said he believed it is a problem statewide.

But he took aim at the county he lives in to draw attention to the problem, jotting down access violations he encountered at public buildings and businesses and taking pictures of them with his digital camera.

He estimated that he had sent hundreds of photos to the attorney general's office over six or seven years, and he said he had been told at one point, "you've overloaded our server.''

Not only did he inundate the state agency in charge of enforcing the 30-year-old access laws, he sent copies of the photos to local government agencies, and then to offending businesses, asking them to make corrections.

When his offer to help one restaurant-inn owner to meet access requirements was rejected, Skaff said, he sued and won $20,000 in damages.

He took on the town of Ross, after he was unable to enter the town hall to talk about a paramedic program because there was no ramp around the stairs at the entrance. He won $5,000 from Ross. He has another case pending against the town involving resurfacing of a street.

And just two months ago, he filed a claim against Corte Madera, the town he once helped govern, contending that the restrooms and new parking, walkway and stairs at town hall aren't accessible to disabled people.

Despite his legal successes, Skaff has been frustrated by what he viewed as a lack of progress in getting publicly owned buildings and businesses to become more accessible.

So Skaff helped form the Coalition of Disability Access Professionals, an informal group of about 15 people, to work on the problem with the attorney general's office, the governor, the state architect and other state agencies.

The settlement with Marin requires the county to begin an aggressive, three-year enforcement effort to be overseen by a state monitor. The county must pay as much as $50,000 a year for the monitor.

In addition, the county agreed to pay $40,000 for the cost of the state's investigation.

The settlement also requires the county to develop a written policy for handling complaints concerning access for the disabled. Investigations on any complaints must be completed in 30 days and problems corrected within 90 days. Owners of businesses who fail to comply with access laws must be referred to the county counsel.

Skaff, who became a paraplegic in 1978 after falling from a tree he was trimming, said he had been pleased by a county-sponsored right-of-way access training workshop last week that drew 250 public officials from throughout the state.

But he said: "I'll be happy when all the corrections are made.''

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