May 29, 2011

DISABILITY ACT GETS A MAKEOVER

Maureen Melius of Hampstead has been on both sides of the ADA. She was a nurse practitioner before a
stroke in February of 2010 left her partially paralyzed.
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
It has been six months since the town of Wolfeboro settled a lawsuit with the federal government over the town’s lack of accessibility. 
Under the 2010 ADA health clubs and gyms are among
public buildings required to upgrade their accessibility.
It was an expensive lesson that Wolfeboro Town Manager Dave Owen said other towns should heed, given recent changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Municipalities need to be aware that there is a potential liability of many hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least in our instance, to make sure parking lots, bathroom counter heights — all sorts of details you wouldn’t normally think of — are accessible,” Owen said.

In 2006, a resident of Wolfeboro filed a
 complaint against the town with the Department of Justice, prompting a complete audit of town buildings, Owen said.
“They gave us a big, thick document listing page after page of deficiencies, and we’ve been systematically upgrading ever since,” Owen said. “We’ve had to do a lot of work over the past four years — we installed a new ADA accessible bathroom in our public safety building. That was a
 $90,000 project. Then we put a new accessible bathroom in our town ice arena — that was another $100,000. This year we did a warrant article for $150,000 to repave all our public parking lots. You can’t have cross-gradients of more than 2 percent in handicapped parking spots. These are things people don’t think about, and the list goes on.”

The settlement requires other upgrades and changes over the next few years, Owen said.
Enacted in 1991

Making the world more accessible for individuals with various disabilities is what recent updates to the ADA are all about. Originally enacted in 1991, the Department of Justice
 last year revised the law; changes officially went into effect in March.
Town officials, builders, contractors and business owners now have until March 2012 to bring public buildings into compliance, said Kathy Gips, director of training at New England ADA.
She has been fielding questions about the changes in the ADA that range from what the deadlines are for major upgrades such as installing elevators, to fine details over the “wiggles and squiggles” of the law, such as height requirements for light switches and thermostats.
“Now is the time to be thinking about the changes that need to be made,” said Gips. “It’s all about harmonizing of
 the various building codes that currently exist. A public bathroom in Arkansas shouldn’t be any different than a public bathroom in New Hampshire.”
Knowing the law

One approach is to have someone come and detail what the changes mean to municipalities, said Michelle Bonsteel, an accessibility specialist for the state Governor’s Commission on Disability. For example, she’s been invited to make a presentation in Windham on June 8, to go over how the ADA changes affect landlords, public and recreational facilities and historic sites, what is grandfathered and what applies to future construction.
“It’s a process,” said Bonsteel. “For example, if you have
 a building in town that’s just changing occupancy, from one retail establishment to another, it doesn’t affect you at all. But if you own a building and are contemplating renovations, you will want to make sure you meet all requirements for accessibility — public buildings, trails, health clubs, amusement parks. Accessibility helps everyone,” Bonsteel said.
In the workplace

Broadening the scope of accessibility goes beyond providing access to public spaces or uniformity issues. It also should help create opportunities in the workplace for those with disabilities, said Clyde Terry, CEO of Granite State Independent Living, a statewide advocacy organization
 that promotes independence among the elderly and disabled.
“There still needs to be a lot done in the area of educating employers about the provisions of the law and that qualified workers with disabilities can perform the essential functions of a job and are a good investment of time and talent. Also, that most accommodations are inexpensive and enhance the workplace,” Terry said.

One woman’s story

Ultimately, change is good — if it helps make the world a more accessible place, said Joe Melius. After his wife suffered a stroke in February 2010, everything changed for the Hampstead
 couple. “I don’t think a lot of business places understand how much more business they’d have with just the addition of a ramp,” Melius said
Maureen Melius, 64, was on her way to work as a nurse’s assistant when she had to pull over.
“I knew something was wrong. They didn’t expect me to live,” said Maureen Melius, who was hospitalized for seven months following her stroke. Now that she’s home, getting around by wheelchair has its challenges. She appreciates supplemental services through Granite State Independent Living.
But she misses her independence, and going to church.
“Updating the ADA is a step in the right direction,” said her husband. “
 

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