Montgomery County to improve access to public facilities for people with disabilities

Americas, September 2 2011

Montgomery County will work with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve access to public facilities for people with disabilities.

On Aug. 16, the department announced an agreement with the county, along with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, that is expected to lead to upgrades in such places as county recreation facilities and high schools that serve as emergency shelters.

The agreement was reached after the Justice Department’s Project Civic Access conducted a study from 2006 to 2009 that examined more than 100 buildings and facilities the county owns, leases or uses for activities, and an additional two years of consultation with county government and the Park and Planning Commission about the department’s findings.

Much of the study involved examining the county’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law passed in 1990 that requires public facilities and programs be made accessible to people with disabilities.

The Project Civic Access study found that the county must make dozens of upgrades in its facilities – from disability toilet access to parking lot signage – in order to be in compliance with the law.

Many of the findings were for “extremely minute” things, said Nancy Greene, the ADA compliance manager for the county.

“A lot of what they found was in our older buildings,” Greene said. “We have a lot of older buildings, many of which we attempted to retrofit to make accessible in the early ’90s.”

The department studied 29 facilities that were either built or altered after January 1992 and had to comply with new requirements. Examples included the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown and the East County Community Center in Silver Spring.

In addition, programs, services and activities in 69 other buildings or facilities were studied for how well they provided access for disabled people. Some of these include the Long Branch Senior Center in Silver Spring, the Montgomery Aquatic Center in North Bethesda and the Noyes Library for Young Children in Kensington.

The county has a timeline of between six months and five years to make the necessary changes, depending upon the building’s age, date of recent updates and other factors. Items for the county to fix include inaccessible ramps into buildings and inaccessible areas of restrooms.

In the 10 county high schools used as emergency shelters, the department found 188 items requiring action and gave the county 14 months to fix them. Problems included a water fountain that protruded into the hallway that would not be detectable to a blind person, doors that required more than five pounds of force to open, a lack of van-accessible parking and inaccessible toilets.

At several parks, such as the Merrimac Neighborhood Park and Ken-Gar Palisades Park, accessibility from the parking lots to other areas such as tennis courts was a problem, the study found.

“I think there are some very good things that are coming out of this,” Greene said. “We’ve learned a lot from the settlement agreement.”

The Justice Department studied only a sample of the county’s facilities and programs. The county and the Park and Planning Commission have agreed to study the remaining areas and programs the department didn’t study and issue a report within three years.

The department also examined the police’s communication system for disabled people and the grievance process for disabled people who believe they do not have proper access.

In some instances, Greene said, the county goes above what the law requires. For example, the county gives a hiring preference to the top-rated people who are disabled people, in particular disabled veterans. The county provides a TTY (teletypewriter, or a device that lets people who are deaf people communicate via telephone) service for 911 calls and a countywide interpreter service.

A report last year from the county’s Commission on People with Disabilities cited a 2009 estimate that 139,000 people in the county have a disability.

In the Capital Improvements Program for 2011-16, $20 million is budgeted for upgrades related to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Greene said, although that number could change once the county surveys additional buildings and programs.


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