Saturday, July 25, 2009

Massachusetts beach town takes pride in its ADA compliance

From The Marblehead Reporter:

MARBLEHEAD, Mass. - For many of those living with disabilities, it is seen as one of the most important pieces of legislation in United States history, much like the Civil Rights Act is to people of color or to women.

Signed into law by President George H. Bush in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people living with disabilities by requiring state and local governments to adhere to certain accessibility guidelines. Equal access to public transportation, pubic buildings, telecommunications, meetings, programs and polling is all mandated under the law. It also requires employers to provide equal opportunities to employees who are disabled.

“It is very far-reaching civil-rights legislation that protects the rights of people with disabilities in all aspects of their lives, which makes it different than all of the other laws that came before it,” said Myra Berloff, the executive director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability.

With the law reaching its 19th-year anniversary, the Marblehead Board of Selectmen recently set aside July 26as a day to recognize the law and doors it has opened for the disabled.

“We urge all citizens of the town of Marblehead, its community leaders, businesses and government officials to celebrate the contributions that people with disabilities have made and continue to make,” reads the selectmen’s proclamation.

According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 51 million people in the United States are living with some level of disability, which represents about 18 percent of the U.S. population. Under the ADA, a disability is defined as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities.

In honor of the town’s declared disability day, the Reporter caught up with those on the town’s Disabilities Commission to talk about the law, how well the town of Marblehead is complying with it, and what the commission hopes to improve upon when it comes to providing access to the disabled, while also noting some of the commission’s more recent accomplishments.

Established by Town Meeting in 2004, the Disabilities Commission is composed of a handful of volunteers whose job it is to serve as a resource to town departments, organizations and residents about disability and handicapped-accessibility issues.

Before it was established, the commission had existed as a selectmen’s advisory committee.

“When we started, we sat down and decided we wanted to change the whole outlook in the commission from being a negative and saying, ‘Well this is wrong with the town, and that’s wrong with the town,’ and instead try and work as a positive image,” said the commission co-chairwoman Mary Levine.

Although as a whole, the town has improved access to popular locales and increased its services for those living with disabilities since the ADA was enacted, those on the town’s Disabilities Commission say there are things upon which the town could improve.

For one, “We’d like to see more outreach from town bodies,” Levine said, adding that many times those on the Disabilities Commission are the ones chasing down those on other boards when it comes to finding out what in town is being renovated.

According to the ADA, all newly constructed buildings must be ADA compliant, and buildings undergoing major renovations also have to comply with its guidelines. Levine said she would like to be clued in more often on all building improvements so that the commission could sign off on those changes.

Meanwhile, balancing historical integrity with handicapped access is perhaps understandably a major challenge in a town founded in the 17th century. For instance, leading up to and at Town Meeting in 2000, an article seeking funding for a small, one-story elevator into the Old Town House generate no shortage of controversy before voters rejected it in a landslide.
In a letter to the editor at the time, former and current town historians Ginny Gamage and Bette Hunt urged a “no” vote.

“Now we are being pressured to damage the centerpiece of our history — the Town House,” the letter read. “The historic responsibility of keeping the Town House intact rests with the voters…Think historic, think heritage.”

Although the building, which is used as a town polling location, does comply with the ADA, with voting taking place in an accessible basement, some Disabilities Commission members said it is still difficult for handicapped people to access the building’s upper level, which at times hosts shows and exhibits.

Meanwhile, some of the downtown area’s sidewalks have been studied to see if accessibility could be improved. Yet according to Town Planner Rebecca Curran, the way the houses and buildings were originally built so close to the street makes such changes impractical. The town has since been granted variances.

Levine said those on the Disabilities Commission understand the town’s unique constraints.

“It’s a very old town, and it’s built on a ledge, so it’s tough, and we understand that, but we think there is always a way to make it better,” Levine said. “We know Marblehead’s restrictions and we’ll do whatever we can to make it ‘good enough.’”

According to Berloff, Marblehead is not the only town with such constraints.

“I don’t know of any municipality or state agency that is completely barrier free,” Berloff said. “Compliance should be an ongoing activity. It does not mean that every single nook and cranny should be accessible.”