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A civil rights law is being violated in Centre County. Who's hurt by it?

A sign in front of the Centre County Courthouse tells those with disabilities to enter in the back.  Historic buildings are required to follow regulations by the Americans with Disabilities Act by providing alternate entrances.
A sign in front of the Centre County Courthouse tells those with disabilities to enter in the back. Historic buildings are required to follow regulations by the Americans with Disabilities Act by providing alternate entrances. adrey@centredaily.com

For Monica Miller, the regional director of C.A.R.E.S., a life-sharing and community-based adult day service in Bellefonte, planning day trips for her clients can be a careful task.

For example, Miller had to cancel a day trip to a church in Bellefonte because it was not fully accessible.

“Although it was a great location, beautiful church, wonderful people, we chose not to have it there because they didn’t have bathrooms that were accessible,” Miller said.

All buildings — including the historical ones that line the streets of areas like Bellefonte, Philipsburg and State College — are required to follow regulations by the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are some exceptions to preserving the historical character of buildings, but solutions should be implemented, including creating alternative entrances, modifying doors and installing ramps and wheelchair lifts.

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A sign in front of the Bellefonte Post Office directs those with disabilities to a side entrance with a ramp. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Miller has found that some historical buildings that aren't up to code use the excuse that they "grandfathered in" to the exception of ADA regulations.

But Ned Liggett, the plan examiner from the Centre Region Council of Governments, said that's no longer a viable reason to not have accessible facilities.

The ADA did have a "grandfather period" where all business owners and public-accessible places had around 20 years to bring their buildings into compliance with ADA regulations. That period expired in March 2013.

The Americans Disability Act Accessibility Guidelines was created to help give people a general idea of what constitutes a barrier of access. However, Liggett said ADAAG should not be used as a design standard.

"So that means people that didn't fix their buildings and remove barriers to access that met ADAAG or the intention of ADAAG were in violation of a civil rights law," Liggett said.

Having buildings that aren't accessible to all hurts everyone, not just those with disabilities, according to Miller.

“Because they have a disability, they have a lot to offer. Maybe it’s that place’s loss that the individual can’t get in because maybe they could work there. So it’s stopping their employment, or maybe they want to volunteer there or if they want to go shopping there," Miller said. “Its hurting both parties, really.”

James Herbert, a professor-in-charge at Penn State's Rehabilitation and Human Services Program, said accessibility for all can impact a business.

“When the physical environment is not inviting, the probability of generating repeat customers with special needs goes down,” Herbert said. “Given that about 1 in 5 adults is someone with a disability, I don’t know too many businesses that can afford losing 20 percent of potential customers.”

Honoring the code

As new buildings go up across the county, accessibility has increased. That's because new building designs are closely regulated to meet accessible building code standards.

Liggett has been on the “front-line” of reviewing commercial building plans in seven municipalities around Centre County.

Because the federal government holds the power to enforce ADA, Liggett makes sure buildings have accessible route requirements to meet building codes that are not directly ADA regulations.

Liggett said there are “oodles” of buildings that are not up to building regulations nationwide. A person must file a lawsuit against a business in order to enforce ADA.

Common factors required for public-accessible buildings include van-accessible parking, accessible entrance and an accessible pathway through the entrance and into the facility, according to Liggett.

In addition, there are specific elements that a building designer must follow — accessible height for a water fountain, toilet rooms with accessible routes and tactile signage (braille and raised letters) located near accessible locations.

Liggett said problems can arise even with established accessibility regulations. “Some building departments may not necessarily know what they are doing, or there’s political pressure to make things not too problematic for people making alterations to buildings, meaning expensive,” he said.

Getting around

Last month, the Centre County Office of Transportation received a federal- and state-funded Capital Grant award for $275,000 to replace four accessible buses. This is essential, as Centre County provides a "shared ride" transportation service to anyone in the county, including those with disabilities.

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David Lomison from Centre County Office of Transportation shows how the lift works on one of the mini-buses the county has to help older community members. The county recently received a grant to replace four accessible buses. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

In addition to the county's accessible fleet, private adult communities have their own accessible transportation for residents.

Jill McKenrick, the connections director at Juniper Communities, a senior living community located in State College, said she often takes her residents out. The biggest difficulty she encounters is the amount of space for handicapped buses to load and unload residents who need walking assistance, often causing traffic backups.

Because she has difficulties driving around one-way streets and parking lots, she avoids trips to downtown State College.

Restroom location in older buildings is also another problem, McKenrick has noticed. Large-sized bathrooms are important because in addition to a wheelchair, there should also be enough room for a caregiver to assist.

Nick Corona, a student at Penn State and an administrative intern at Juniper Village, said he noticed some older buildings have bathrooms not located on the ground floor, in which handicapped people would have to use stairs in order to access the facilities.

“Bars, their restrooms are very small and old. Some bars you can only go up the stairs or down the stairs to and there’s not really an elevator,” Corona said.

McKenrick said she knows which restaurants downtown are off-limits.

“And that’s unfortunate, because some of those are my favorite restaurants, so I feel bad that some of our residents can’t go to those places," McKenrick said.

More platform lifts in spaces that don’t have ramps for people who are handicapped would help, she said.

State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said ordinances such as the “Unlawful Public Accommodations Practices” and the “Residential Visitability Design Tax Credit Program” require and incentivize accessibility from local property owners.

“These ordinances, along with the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code, help improve the accessibility of local buildings for people with disabilities,” Fountaine said in a statement. “The Borough will continue to work to make sure that our community is accessible by residents and visitors.”

For Herbert, the first step is to start working on people's own belief system. That starts with the question, “What can I do to make this work for someone different from me?”

“Once we explore this question, it is amazing how accessibility barriers start to come down," he said.

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