People with disabilities still face obstacles as they try to navigate public buildings across Long Island almost 30 years after federal law mandated equal access to those structures.
From a lack of elevators in Lindenhurst Village Hall to nonautomatic doors at Long Beach City Hall, buildings such as government facilities, libraries and schools end up limiting access to those with disabilities.
“It’s a consistent struggle and it’s a matter of people with disabilities being willing and able to do what they can do to get the law enforced,” said Therese Brzezinski, director of planning and public policy for the LI Center for Independent Living Inc. based in Levittown.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, was the first comprehensive civil rights legislation to address the needs of those with disabilities and ensure equal access and treatment. The law prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in all programs and services and applies to all governments, special districts, and public transit systems. The U.S. Department of Justice will investigate any complaints against a municipality.
The law allows for buildings to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. As it was being drafted, its sponsors recognized "you couldn’t retroactively apply standards across the board to existing facilities,” said Dave Yanchulis, technical and information services director for the U.S. Access Board, which is responsible for developing and updating ADA accessibility guidelines.
“The ADA was trying to be realistic in trying to say, ‘What can we get for accessibility in buildings that are already built?’ ” Yanchulis said.
More than 250,000 people on Long Island have disabilities, according to the latest five-year estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau. To identify common obstacles they face throughout Long Island, Newsday examined buildings in Babylon Town and found that while most of the public buildings have ramps or other accessibility, problems remain.
For instance, Babylon Town Hall in Lindenhurst, which has a ramp at one entrance, has only one public bathroom and there are no stalls large enough to fit a wheelchair.
Supervisor Rich Schaffer said in a statement that “increasing handicap accessibility is a top priority” for the town.
“This particular public bathroom was identified as a needed renovation in 2017 and we expect to complete the project, including meeting all updated ADA requirements, within the next year,” he said. The town has set aside $150,000 for the project, officials said.
While some projects are inexpensive for municipalities, others, such as retrofitting an older building with an elevator, can be costly. Sometimes, a building's infrastructure doesn't allow for easy fixes.
Disability advocates told Newsday that problems are widespread.
“It’s not just one place, that’s the sad part,” said Allilsa Fernandez of Queens, a disability activist who at first focused on issues at Stony Brook University such as nonworking automatic doors and unshoveled ramps, but found that lack of access is a problem in many places. “It’s ridiculous because it is the law. It’s not like we’re asking for something new.”
Brzezinski said there is a "myth" that older buildings are “grandfathered” in under the ADA requirements.
“The tendency is for entities to say our building is old or older and so we don’t have to do anything,” said Brzezinski. “That’s then the blanket excuse to get you off the hook to providing equal access. That’s not what the ADA provides for.”
Longtime disability advocate Liz Treston said Long Beach City officials have for years given her a similar excuse as to why they have been unable to make the front door accessible, claiming possible historical significance prevented them from making any changes.
Treston, who was paralyzed in a diving accident and uses a wheelchair, said the door opens outward, is too heavy and has no button to open it automatically. As a result Treston, who is running in the Democratic primary for City Council, has to wait for someone to enter or leave to help her get inside.
“It’s a big effort for me to come out there in the first place when it’s freezing cold and then I have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for someone to come by,” she said. “I’m not asking you to make anything special for me, I’m asking you to involve your community. I’m not the only person in a wheelchair.”
City spokesman Gordon Tepper said the city is in the “preplanning” stage of renovating the first floor lobby with superstorm Sandy recovery funds, including a new ADA-compliant door. “We want to make sure City Hall is accessible to everyone in our community,” he said.
When it comes to meetings, events or other public programming, if it is held on another floor of a government building, library or school, Yanchulis said, “you have to do whatever’s needed so that program is accessible.” That doesn’t necessarily mean major construction such as adding an elevator, ramp or lift, he said. Sometimes it means relocating a program to another space that is accessible.
One building where this has been done is the North Babylon Public Library, where the stacks and meeting room can only be reached by stairs.
“We move programs up to the main meeting room constantly,” said library director Marc Horowitz. He said the board of trustees is considering adding a meeting space to the first floor.
At Lindenhurst Village Hall, trustee, planning and zoning board meetings all take place on the second floor, as does village court. The building has only stairs to the second floor.
Mayor Mike Lavorata said the cost of adding an elevator is one obstacle but also, because of the way the building is structured, there is no place to put an elevator.
“Because of the physical limitations, there’s nothing right now that we can do,” he said.
Resident John Lisi, who uses a cane, said the stairs have become “an endurance test” for seniors and those with injuries who come to meetings.
“Unfortunately, given long injury recovery times and the accruing of years of age, sooner or later their involvement in village management will draw to an end at some point due to being unable to climb those stairs,” he said.
Lavorata said he recalls only one incident more than 15 years ago where someone was physically unable to get upstairs for a zoning board hearing. In that case a microphone was brought downstairs and a closed circuit television set up so the person could participate.
“It was so archaic,” he said.
Since then, he said, the village moves meetings it expects to be heavily attended to larger, accessible venues.
About twice a year individuals are unable to get up to the court, said village attorney Gerard Glass. When that happens, he said, the proceeding is moved downstairs.
Lavorata said he does want to address the issue and has been contemplating adding a stair lift.
Brzezinski, who said she has not seen the Village Hall, wondered if those relegated to the bottom of the steps are “really getting full access” to the proceedings. “It’s better than nothing but it’s not the solution,” she said.
Because of the high costs associated with some fixes, obtaining state and federal money for accessibility projects can be crucial for municipalities. Since it was started in 2013, New York's State and Municipal Facilities Program has given out nearly a billion dollars in grants, including millions for ADA accessible projects across the state. More than $500,000 went to a half dozen governments, school districts and libraries on Long Island, including the Cold Spring Harbor, Port Jefferson and Sachem school districts.
A grant for $50,000 went to the Brentwood Public Library to add a handicap lift over the approximately six stairs from the main floor to their history room. The lift is one of several access projects the library has completed in the last decade, Library Director Thomas Tarantowicz said, including widening doors and creating doors that open automatically.
Marilyn Tucci is the advocacy and outreach coordinator for Suffolk Independent Living Organization, a Holtsville-based nonprofit that provides services and programs for the disabled. Tucci’s organization is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last month against the MTA and LIRR over the lack of elevators at three Babylon Town stations: Amityville, Copiague and Lindenhurst.
Tucci, who is blind, said even when municipalities provide access in the form of elevators, little thought is given to other types of disabilities, such as providing Braille or audio to help the visually impaired.
“I believe more can be done,” she said. “How can we be treated equally when we still have all these obstacles in our way?”
Brzezinski said ultimately the burden falls on those with disabilities to fight back when they encounter access problems.
“In order to save money or because of a lack of knowledge, entities and builders have ignored requirements for accessibility in many cases and the idea is ‘this is how we’re going to do it and if somebody complains we’ll change it later,’ ” she said. “The reality around ADA, and in particular for architectural access, it’s a law that the way to get it enforced is that the people have to make a wave about it.”