Sandy Hanebrink, an Upstate woman who uses a wheelchair, had trouble getting into a recent public meeting at Greer City Hall. She was met with a locked door near the accessible parking and had to ask a stranger to push her up a steep grade to a door that was open.
Hanebrink persisted that night, and attended the public meeting with the help of a willing stranger. Without that stranger, she wouldn’t have made it inside City Hall.
What Hanebrink encountered is not unusual. Nearly three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, some citizens with disabilities continue to encounter barriers to getting around, accessing public facilities and businesses.
Setting the pace
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the July 26, 1990, signing of the ADA. The law is designed to allow those with disabilities to “enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the act.
Even 25 years later, some governments are still struggling to comply. Under the Title II portion of the ADA, public places and local governments must provide access to those with disabilities in both facilities and programs. Buildings constructed after 1992 had to be ADA-compliant and resources like 911 communication and websites must be accessible.
“Greer now has, in a very short time, taken positive action,” Hanebrink said. “The fact that they took such immediate action with some pretty key steps in place is very positive.”
The city appointed an ADA coordinator, required for public entities that employ 50 or more people. A coordinator is also responsible for conducting a self-evaluation and creating a transition plan for compliance. Governments of this size must also develop and publish a grievance procedure. All governments must post a public ADA notice.
The deadline for completing those plans was 1995.
Hanebrink, who serves as executive director of a nonprofit that helps those with disabilities obtain assistive technology and other products, said before the changes, Greer was “not unlike many municipalities” in compliance levels.
Cities and counties
The Greenville Journal surveyed local governments and discovered several have appointed their ADA coordinator as recently as last month. One of them was Greenville County, which named safety and health coordinator Warren Edwards as its ADA coordinator in late March.
County spokesman Bob Mihalic said that codes, property management and facilities management personnel had been assessing ADA compliance all along. Before Edwards was appointed, the county administrator’s office handled any complaints, he said. According to the county website, the ADA public notice and grievance procedure were added on March 23.
Simpsonville recently appointed human resources director Phyllis Long to the post. Long said she is in early stages of self-assessment for the city. In Mauldin, building official Joshua Cross serves as the ADA coordinator.
Travelers Rest’s small staff does not require an ADA coordinator, said city administrator Dianna Turner. She handles requests or complaints and noted that the city has brought its circa-1985 city hall up to compliance.
Greer building official Ruthie Helms is the city’s new ADA coordinator. Helms said she is familiar with the ADA’s facility requirements.
“The building code is black and white, but the ADA is a civil rights law,” she said, a distinction that Hanebrink also stresses. Greer is completing a self-assessment with the help of Able SC, a nonprofit that works to provide independent living services for those with disabilities.
“When we found out that we didn’t have the measures in place, we went right to work on that,” Helms said. Self-assessment “makes you think differently.” To date, Greer has installed additional signage, drafted an ADA public statement and created a grievance procedure. After a self-assessment, Helms said she will bring the noncompliant items to City Council. Helms said she plans to pursue coordinator certification.
As it did in Greer, ensuring access often comes down to a complaint process. The U.S. Department of Justice works with local governments to resolve complaints, and has done so with multiple cities and counties in South Carolina, including Oconee County, Laurens County and the city of Isle of Palms. Those that fail to comply can be subject to Justice Department review or civil lawsuit.
“It’s the city’s responsibility to ensure they are serving all citizens in compliance with the law, not just the ones they think they can fund,” Hanebrink said. “This is not just a building code, this is a civil right. The ADA is much more than the built environment.”
Noncompliance can equal a cut in funding if services come through the Department of Justice, she said.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division “is aware that not all state and local governments completed a self-evaluation plan and that some entities that were required to develop a transition plans never did so,” said Eve Hill, deputy assistant attorney general for the agency’s Disability Rights Section.
To prompt action, the Justice Department launched Project Civil Access (PCA) in 2000, with a goal to visit all states to compel compliance. The agency has reached settlement agreements with 211 public entities nationwide.
Local noncompliance could stem from lack of knowledge, Helms said, a view that Hanebrink also shares.
“Awareness is key,” Hanebrink said. “I don’t think the intent is to discriminate, I just don’t think they have the knowledge of what the requirements are. Our intent is to work with people to make the societal changes that are necessary.”
‘Making it the best you can’
The city of Greenville’s ADA coordinator was appointed in 1995. Mark Teal, who also serves as the city’s risk manager, said the majority of issues he hears about are physical access.
Older buildings can be modified and renovations should be compliant with the current ADA standard, he said. “Over time, the goal is for everything to be barrier-free and accessible to all.”
Teal said he had a family member who used a wheelchair and saw firsthand how difficult it is to navigate places like a store’s tightly placed clothing racks or too-small doorways.
City Hall, built in 1972, recently underwent renovations on the first-floor restrooms. That project, costing about $15,000, created a “tremendous improvement in accessibility” within several inches of the ADA standards for new construction, he said.
Other departments seek out ways to make city facilities and attractions more accessible, he said. “People look for this as part of what they do. We work to do the right thing though we are not being watched.”
“I don’t know of anywhere that’s perfect,” Teal said. “It’s a balancing act of finding the best way to make it the best you can.”
Though it may be a long journey to total access, “we have to celebrate each milestone and celebrate what’s going on positively,” Hanebrink said. “It was very frustrating [in Greer] and the occurrence should have never happened, but they are taking very positive steps and kind of ahead of the game.”
Across the Upstate, “some places could be so much better, and it’s something simple like painting a curb or putting up a sign,” she said. “Putting policy in place doesn’t cost anything.”
Five things required under ADA
For all governments:
Adopt and distribute a public notice about ADA mandates.
For those with 50+ employees:
Designate at least one staffer to coordinate compliance and investigate complaints.
Conduct a self-assessment.
Create a transition plan for compliance.
Develop and publish grievance procedures.
Source: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division
Good for everyone
Making facilities ADA compliant “makes it easier for everyone,” said wheelchair user Sandy Hanebrink.
“At some point in your life, you or someone you know will have a disability, whether temporary like a broken bone, or permanent,” she said. Automatic doors and ramps can be helpful for parents with young children and senior citizens alike.
“Every time I go into the restroom, the only stall that is full is the accessible stall and the other ones are empty,” she said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t make all of them accessible, because that is what people want.”
The great outdoors
Some facilities are opening up, said Sandy Hanebrink, especially in recreation, which is used by an increasing number of disabled veterans and para-athletes. In 2012, Anderson County’s Dolly Cooper Park dedicated an ADA-accessible kayak launch that will soon connect to Pelzer’s Timmerman Park to become the first ADA-accessible segment of the Saluda River Blue Trail.
Economic impact of 65 million people
A 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report found disabled citizens represent roughly $200 billion in discretionary spending. Sandy Hanebrink frequents certain stores because they are more accessible and avoids others because it is too difficult to conduct business.
“People with disabilities have money to spend,” she said. Hiring those with disabilities also equals personal economic success and increased quality of life, she said. “It makes sense on so many levels.”
For accessible services, there are several places where governments can improve, said Hanebrink.
Parks and recreation
Tax service departments (counters are often too high)
Council meeting access
Project Civic Access
The U.S. Department of Justice visits each state and surveys public entity compliance with the ADA law in the Project Civic Access project. Some visits are prompted by complaints. Here are a few in South Carolina:
2001 – Allendale County, three people who used wheelchairs had their court hearings held in the hallway rather than in a courtroom because they were not accessible.
2003 – Folly Beach, Town Hall, community center and Ocean Park Pavilion changes.
2005 – Florence County, magistrate’s office, law enforcement complex, Lake City Public Library, Lynches River County Park and civic center access.
2005 – Laurens County, Law Enforcement Center, courthouse and library.
2010 – Oconee County’s courthouse (built in 2003) was found to not be accessible in many areas, including parking, witness stands and jury boxes.
2013 – City of West Columbia, posted notices on ADA rights, designated ADA coordinator, TTY for 911 system, added grievance procedure, sidewalks and access to facilities.
2013 – City of Isle of Palms, asking job applicants on the employment application if they were disabled.