Thursday, December 18, 2008

Golden Gate National Recreation Area to become more accessible

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Advocates who claimed the disabled are excluded from vital locations in Bay Area national parks - including trails, campgrounds, visitor centers and restrooms - announced an agreement with the government Wednesday on a plan to make 75,000 acres of federally managed lands more user-friendly.

Under the memorandum signed by the Disability Rights Advocates law firm and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the government has four years to prepare blueprints for identifying and removing any barriers to disability access that may exist in such sites as Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands, Fort Mason and Alcatraz. The recreation area stretches from San Mateo to Marin counties.

"It binds the parties to a schedule of getting the work done ... a joint effort to do what the law requires," said Disability Rights Advocates attorney Larry Paradis.

Experts from the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University have already surveyed some of the most widely used sites, and the subjects of the most frequent complaints about disability access, and presented their findings to recreation area officials.

Park managers are scheduled to prepare improvement plans for those areas by June, invite public comment and negotiate any disputed issues with disability advocates before seeking final approval from U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte. The agreement outlines steps for studies and improvement plans for the rest of the recreation area through mid-2012.

The memorandum, which both sides signed last month but kept under wraps until Wednesday, suspends a class-action suit filed by three disabled people in February that accused park officials of discriminating against people with mobility and vision impairments. Paradis said the suit can be revived if negotiations on improvements break down.

One plaintiff, Peter Mendoza of Berkeley, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, recalled a recent visit to Fort Mason in which the sidewalk curbs were too high, no bathrooms were accessible, and there was no ramp in front of the administration building. After pushing the designated button and getting no response, he said, he finally returned to the front of the building and flagged someone down.

Paradis said another common complaint is steep trails - for example, he said, virtually all trails in the beautiful and popular Marin Headlands are inaccessible to the disabled.

"There's no real dispute that there are thousands and thousands of barriers that need to be remedied," he said. "We know there are limits on how much can be fixed, and on the time frame, because of funding. We'll be working to identify the most critical barriers to have them fixed first."

Recreation area officials said they had been studying disability issues long before the suit was filed. Spokesman Rich Weideman said the new agreement gives the agency "the leverage we need to do construction projects we might not have thought about in the past" to make access a priority.

"This is definitely the right thing to do," he said.