Through the front door

December 12th, 2009 - By Marc Chase

Nearly two decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, a Times investigation found the region remains rife with barriers that make it difficult for disabled residents to board trains, visit libraries, eat at restaurants and take part in other simple pursuits. The three-month investigation found front doors, ramps, parking spaces and bathroom facilities that limit or completely bar access to disabled residents such as Rich Garza, above, who is seen navigating Kennedy Avenue in Highland. (Photograph by John J. Watkins/The Times.)

Nearly two decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, a Times investigation found the region remains rife with barriers that make it difficult for disabled residents to board trains, visit libraries, eat at restaurants and take part in other simple pursuits. The three-month investigation found front doors, ramps, parking spaces and bathroom facilities that limit or completely bar access to disabled residents such as Rich Garza, above, who is seen navigating Kennedy Avenue in Highland.
(Photograph by John J. Watkins/The Times.)

For region wheelchair users and others who live with disabilities, accessibility means getting through the front door and using services once inside—actions most people take for granted.

But two decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, disabled region residents continue to meet obstacles going into entryways, bathrooms and other areas of public buildings and private businesses.

A three-month Times investigation of dozens of public facilities, high-traffic businesses, shopping centers and downtown districts in Lake and Porter counties and the south Chicago suburbs revealed at least 71 barriers to wheelchair users and others with disabilities.

Some sites presented no barriers to access, while others posed multiple challenges to front-door entry and access to indoor facilities. And several of the obstacles contradicted ADA standards.

Among the findings, The Times probe revealed:

Wheelchair users cannot enter the front doors of at least 26 businesses in one city’s downtown business district because of concrete steps or high thresholds near entryways.

A ramp at a business that sells wheelchairs is more than twice as steep as the recommended ADA standard.

Parking designated as accessible at one local government facility does not allow enough clearance to remove wheelchairs from the side doors of vehicles.

Bathrooms and stalls at public and private buildings are either inaccessible or don’t allow enough room for stall doors to be closed once wheelchairs are inside.

Wheelchair users cannot open the doors and enter some buildings without the risk of crashing backward down concrete steps or rolling backward down ramps.

Many region businesses and public facilities have greatly improved access for the disabled, but many others are woefully behind, said region wheelchair users, disability advocates and ADA compliance experts.

Some region business owners said making decades-old buildings compliant with modern ADA standards can be costly and structurally challenging, given older building layouts.

One city planner admits businesses and architects often do all they can to comply only minimally with the law, sometimes creating facilities with questionable accessibility.

Main Street roadblocks

Sandra Johnson, of Hebron, wheeled up and down the sidewalks of Crown Point’s downtown square at a loss for where to eat lunch. Johnson, who suffers from osteoarthritis in her legs and often uses a wheelchair, passed row after row of storefronts through which her chair could not enter.

At least 26 downtown front entrances required ascending concrete steps or stepping over ground-level thresholds 2 inches high or more, making them impassable to wheelchairs.

“What they’re really saying down here is, we don’t want disabled people to come here, shop here or do much of anything here,” she said.

Johnson, who has received disability advocacy training through the Indiana Governor’s Council for People With Disabilities, was one of four wheelchair users who accompanied The Times on visits to dozens of region public buildings, downtown shopping districts, restaurants and retail businesses during the past three months.

Johnson found accessing storefronts in several of Northwest Indiana’s downtown areas to be among the biggest challenges.

A visit to Valparaiso’s downtown district yielded similar obstacles. While far more businesses provided accessible entryways than in Crown Point, at least five front doors were inaccessible to wheelchairs because of high thresholds, steps or other barriers.

In one case, Johnson’s chair became stuck in the foyer between two front doors of a downtown shop with no possible way to enter because of clearance issues.

Many of the problems with access to downtown areas stem from older construction, designed before the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Crown Point Planning Director Curt Graves said.

Old construction

Crown Point business owner Gus Pappas acknowledged making older buildings accessible to people with disabilities can be difficult and expensive, but it’ not impossible.

Pappas said customers told him for several years they would like to bring their wheelchair-using parents or grandparents to his family restaurant, Main Street Cafe, which occupies a building constructed in the 1940s. But two concrete steps at the main entrance kept some families from enjoying meals together.

So when Pappas bought the property next-door and opened the Zodiac bar and restaurant, he laid accessible ramps in the front and back of the facility and added an adjoining door to the Main Street Cafe, making both businesses accessible.

“We just asked the city what we would need to do to make this possible, and we did it,” Pappas said. “These issues can be difficult to work through, so you don’t block sidewalks with ramps or because of the way the building is laid out. But it can be done.”

Under the ADA, when businesses remodel or alter the structure of buildings, the remodeled or renovated areas must comply with the federal law. For example, if a downtown Crown Point business improved or restructured its entryway, concrete steps, high thresholds or other barriers would need to be removed and accessible facilities put in place, Graves said.

But absent structural alterations or remodeling, city building inspectors can do nothing about the scores of businesses built prior to the ADA that fail to comply with the spirit or letter of the law, he said.

Teresa Torres, executive director of Merrillville-based Everybody Counts, an agency that advocates for the disabled, said the ADA calls for all businesses and public buildings—whether new or old in terms of construction—to make reasonable efforts to become accessible.

“You will hear some business owners say, ‘Well nobody with disabilities comes in here, anyway, so why should I spend money to make it accessible?’ ” Torres said. “The real answer is they don’t go in there because they can’t, not because they don’t want to. Wheelchair users or others with disabilities could be spending money inside, just like everybody else, but they can’t get even through the front door.”

Problems with access for the region’s disabled go beyond front doors, The Times investigation found.

Barriers inside, too

Pulling into the lot of the Lake County Public Library on U.S. 30 in Merrillville, wheelchair users and other disabled library patrons are met with adequate accessible parking under the ADA. Automatic front doors slide open, allowing for ease in wheelchair entry. Staff are on hand to help reach books or reference material from high shelves.

But a trip to the restroom reveals barriers that run counter to the ADA, according to region disability advocates.

The men’s room door requires more than 15 pounds of pressure to open when exiting the facility. Under ADA standards, internal doors should require only 5 pounds of pressure to open and should be operable with a closed fist.

Toilet stalls allow enough clearance for wheelchairs to enter — but not enough to close the stall doors once a wheelchair user is inside.

Such features leave wheelchair users and those with limited arm strength and gripping ability either out of luck or with less dignity, region disability advocates say.

“The impact is that these barriers shrink your life and your dignity,” said Emma Sullivan, an ADA consultant with Everybody Counts. “A lot of energy goes into identifying what you can and cannot do and where you can and cannot go.”

Lake County Public Library Director Larry Acheff acknowledged some shortcomings at the building in terms of access for the disabled. He said the library is planning renovations for next year and would be considering new bathroom designs to improve accessibility, as well as moving accessible parking closer to the front of the building.

Lake County’s library system recently spent about $900,000 to renovate its Highland branch, adding accessible bathrooms with ADA-compliant doors and stalls.

Such barriers plague restrooms and other facilities throughout the state, said Suellen Jackson-Boner, executive director of the Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities.

“Just because you can get a wheelchair into a stall doesn’t mean you can close the door or turn around,” Jackson-Boner said. “Sometimes people’s versions of access are not necessarily knowledge-based.”

Understanding the challenges

George Janiec, a wheelchair user since a 1995 car accident limited use of his legs, understands that sentiment firsthand. Simply having knowledge of the ADA standards doesn’t make one capable of designing accessible facilities that are truly usable by those in wheelchairs or those with other disabilities, he said.

Prior to his accident, Janiec worked for a region manufacturing company with the task of converting old buildings into ADA-compliant facilities.

“I recall at one time, I thought putting a sheet of outdoor plywood over stairs at one of the plants would serve as an adequate wheelchair ramp,” Janiec said.

But when a civil mediator challenged him to borrow a wheelchair to try out the makeshift ramp, he realized its folly.

“I made it a third of the way up and then was going head over heels backwards,” said Janiec, who now spends much of his time as a Hammond activist for tax reform. “I finally came up with a ramp design with staggered platforms that worked much better.”

Part of the problem with several modern accessibility designs, according to Janiec and other wheelchair users, is that no one with practical knowledge of the disabilities tests the designs before building them.

Many of the disabled-accessible parking spaces in front of the Lake County Government Complex, for instance, don’t allow enough room for wheelchairs to be removed from the side doors of most vehicles when all the parking spaces are occupied, Janiec pointed out.

The Times investigation revealed several more examples.

In the case of a Highland medical building, wheelchair ramps provide access on both sides of the front door. However, because of short clearance room on the landing, it’s difficult or impossible to be in a wheelchair, open the front door and enter without either slipping backward down one of the ramps or wheeling backward down a nearby flight of concrete steps.

Another region business that sells wheelchairs in an older building is equipped with a ramp that leads from its street-level entrance up to its elevated storefront. ADA standards call for 1 inch of rise for every 12 inches of ramp length. However, Times measurements of the ramp revealed it rose 2 1/4 inches for every foot of length, making it more than twice as steep as the ADA standard.

A representative of the business said the store rents the site and has no control over construction issues there.

Meanwhile, Janiec wonders why more businesses don’t consult actual wheelchair users and other disabled patrons regarding practical access designs.

“Sometimes you ask yourself, ‘Who’s designing this?’ ” Janiec said. “The answer, typically, is that people without disabilities are doing the design.

“Unless you’re in a person’s shoes, how do you do that design job?”

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