DISABLED STILL PUSH FOR ACCESS TO PUBLIC PLACES
By Eileen Bailey
Randy Lavender was disappointed he couldn't see his son play basketball one day in January.
It's not that the Tupelo resident was too busy or had a prior commitment. Lavender didn't attend because he couldn't get his wheelchair into the New Albany school gym where the game was being played.
Even though officials offered to help lift his chair into the gym, Lavender declined, saying he should have been able to get into the building without assistance.
Lavender is one Northeast Mississippi resident pushing to have all public and private buildings handicapped accessible and in compliance with the American Disabilities Act of 1990.
"I like going places like everyone else does," Lavender said. "I would like to go to places that all of my friends go to."
In the past few months, Lavender has written several letters and made countless phone calls to business owners asking them to comply with the ADA requirements, which went into effect in 1992.
The ADA, a 600-page law, is divided into five sections, each dealing with the rights of the disabled.
Most government buildings should be in compliance and are covered in Title II of the ADA. Local governments can apply for federal assistance to become in compliance with the law through the Community Development Block Grant program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Of the five sections, there is one - Title III - that deals directly with public accommodations, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, retail stores, dry cleaners, hospitals, museums, libraries and bowling alleys.
Title III states that public accommodations must:
Provide goods and services in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.
Eliminate unnecessary eligibility standards or rules that deny individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to enjoy the goods and services of a place of public accommodation.
Make reasonable modifications in policies, practices and procedures that deny equal access to individuals with disabilities, unless a fundamental alteration would result in the nature of the goods and services provided.
Remove architectural and structural communication barriers in existing facilities where "readily achievable." In the law, "readily achievable" means "easily accomplished and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense."
Provide readily achievable alternative measures when removal of barriers cannot be made.
Any new buildings must meet the construction codes set by the ADA.
Most of the barriers Lavender has encountered are architectural in nature. In some buildings, the doorways are not large enough for a wheelchair or there is no ramp. Lavender said there are thresholds small enough to get a mobile wheelchair over, but not small enough for a motorized wheelchair.
Inside a business, the violation may be aisles that aren't wide enough.
"I try to go to them (business owners) first and talk to them," he said. "If nothing happens I then sent them a letter to remind them."
Many of the businesses on the list, which includes such places as pawn shops, sporting good stores and restaurants, told Lavender that they don't have the money to renovate their businesses to comply, he said. Others have said that they didn't know they had to comply. Some have made the changes requested by Lavender.
If the businesses don't comply, Lavender said he has no choice but to report them to the U.S. Justice Department for not being in compliance with the law.
The next step
Liz Savage, counsel to the assistant Attorney General with the U.S. Department of Justice, said the disabled have two avenues of recourse.
First, one can file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department. If a complaint, which must be in writing, is filed with the Justice Department, there are several things that can happen.
In some states, the matter could be turned over to trained mediators if the businesses are willing, Savage said. If this is not an option, the Justice Department takes the complaints on a case-by-case basis, she said.
When investigating a business, Savage said they take into account if the business is willing to work in "good faith." These businesses are ones that are willing to make changes that are "readily achievable." These changes are ongoing obligations by the business.
If the business doesn't show "good faith," the Justice Department will investigate. If during the investigation the business still makes no effort to make the "readily achievable" changes, the Justice Department can file a lawsuit.
In the suit, the Justice Department will seek compensatory damages on behalf of the person who filed the complaint, and a civil penalty. The penalty on a first offense is up to $50,000 and up to $100,000 for the second.
"Suing, for us, is a last resort," Savage said. In the last five years, the justice department has only sued 32 times based on complaints.
Individuals also have the right to sue a business for violations of the ADA. They may do this without having to file a complaint with the Justice Department.
If an individual files a lawsuit in federal court, any changes could be in the form of a court order, Savage said. An individual filing a suit cannot file for compensatory damages.
"People with disabilities want to be reasonable," Lavender said. "We just want the same rights as someone else."
There are organizations in Northeast Mississippi and throughout the country that help businesses better understand the ADA and how to comply.
The Southeast Disability & Business Technical Assistance Center in Atlanta, which covers eight states, including Mississippi, provides an 800 number for businesses get information on the ADA and how they can comply with it.
The center also provides written material, including copies of the law. One piece of information include facts about disability-related tax provisions.
Another such organization is Living Independence for Everyone, which has offices in Tupelo and Oxford.
Independent Living Specialist Michael Sullivan said his office helps businesses better understand the law but also provides information to the disabled about their rights.
"Many of them have been beat down by the system," Sullivan said. "They are embarrassed to ask about things."
Lavender agreed, noting that many wait and let someone else file a complaint. "Businesses have said that they have not heard from others," he said. "People need to say something while they are there."