WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Having spent 35 of his 59 years in a wheelchair, Boca Raton attorney Bob Pearce (pictured) knows the needs of the disabled are often ignored. But he didn't expect to have his rights violated at the federal courthouse.
A routine hearing turned ugly when security guards blocked him from parking in one of six empty handicap spaces in the sprawling lot in front of the downtown courthouse.
The alternative they suggested, a public lot nearby, left him stranded atop a steep hill. He made it to the hearing after flagging down a stranger, who grabbed the handles of his chair and wheeled him safely down the incline.
But he was outraged. So was the judge.
"It's disgraceful," U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hurley said.
"The federal courts are the institution of government that enforces the Americans With Disabilities Act," he said. Instead, it appears it is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the nearly 21-year-old landmark legislation that was designed to break down barriers and open up opportunities for the disabled.
And although the situation at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach is problematic, Pearce and others said it's not unique. The rigors disabled people face getting to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale aren't much better. And, some suspect, when a $42 million federal courthouse opens in Fort Pierce this year, the disabled, along with able-bodied people, are going to have difficulty reaching it.
"Here's federal courthouses that are supposed to protect people and they're the worst in terms of accommodation," Pearce said.
"It violates my rights as an American citizen," said Herbert Cohen, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who also uses a wheelchair. He, too, was shooed out of the parking lot at the West Palm Beach courthouse by guards who said the handicap spaces were reserved for employees, not the public.
If there were a reasonable alternative, both said they wouldn't complain. But, they said, there's not.
Using the nearby public garage puts a person in a wheelchair on top of a concrete ski slope. A surface lot nearby is also nearly impossible for someone in a wheelchair to use, Pearce said. First, he would have to wheel up a hill to get to a light so he could safely cross the busy four-lane road where a juror was struck and killed several years ago. And even if he could muscle up the hill, he'd face another problem once he reached the crosswalk: no curb cut.
Marc Meyers, building official for the city of Fort Pierce, said the federal government plays by different rules. Other businesses are forced to provide parking and designate a certain number of spaces for disabled people, but the federal government is exempt from the state's accessibility building code.
In fact, the federal government doesn't provide parking at courthouses.
When the federal courthouse was being planned in Fort Pierce, Meyers said he was given a courtesy copy of the plans and was told people would park at the city parking garage across the street. Concerned about the safety of people crossing U.S. 1, he suggested a skyway be built over the four-lane highway that separates the garage from the courthouse.
Federal officials said they would consider it, but they weren't willing to pay for it. "It's going to be plenty accessible except people are going to have to cross U.S. 1," Meyers said.
A similar situation exists in Fort Lauderdale. Private and city-owned parking garages are located behind the courthouse. Although there used to be a ramped entrance in the back of the building, it was closed several years ago.
Now the disabled have to travel around the courthouse where a lengthy series of ramps leads to the second-floor entrance. The distance of the parking garage from the entrance is prohibitive and the serpentine ramps are extremely difficult to use, Cohen and Pearce said.
Officials from the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, said providing parking at courthouses is problematic. Security concerns erupted after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and escalated after the Sept. 11 attacks. The goal is to keep parking areas far from buildings, they said.
The roughly 40-year-old West Palm Beach courthouse is unusual because it has a parking lot. Officials couldn't be reached to explain when it was closed to the public.
Both Pearce and Cohen said they used to be able to park in it and were surprised when they were told they no longer could. They suspect the change occurred when the building reopened in 2006 after being closed two years for renovations. Hurley said he had no idea the lot was closed to the public.
A GSA official said the agency has tried to find a way to accommodate the disabled without compromising security. Moving the handicap spaces to a different part of the parking lot, so they would be farther from the courthouse, would put them closer to a federal building on the other side of the lot, creating another security problem. Some have voiced concerns that if they allow disabled people to park in the lot, they have to open it to other people as well. Otherwise, they could face charges of reverse discrimination.
Another possible solution would be to ask the city to remove meters from several nearby parking spaces on the street to reserve them for the disabled. But, as Pearce will attest, trying to haul a wheelchair out of a car with vehicles whizzing by is far from ideal.
To Hurley, the debate is nonsensical. "It's just indefensible that we have spaces that we don't make available to people who clearly fall within the ambient of the (Americans With Disabilities) act," he said. "It's foolish and an offense. It's time to get serious about this."
Monday, January 24, 2011
Security measures installed after the 2001 terror attacks block accessible parking at federal courthouse in Florida
The Palm Beach Post:
Posted by BA Haller at 1:48 PM