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Dark ages access.

Many years ago, when accessibility issues were plain and simple, you didn't have to be concerned about barriers to buildings and other access problems. If you were in a wheelchair, you stayed home and had a "walker" run your errands. Or if you were adventurous enough to go out, you called on Cousin Louie and "da boys" to lift you up and down steps.

A saying back then was, "If you're in a wheelchair, you don't have to be concerned about going to jail or going to church." Nearly all the courthouses and churches were grandiose structures surrounded by an abundance of steps. So, it was almost impossible to wheel in by yourself and cop a plea in front of the judge or pray to the Almighty. It usually took "Louie and the lifters" or an official stand-in to keep you out of the hoosegow and out of Hades.

But that was then--and this is now. With all the new Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates, people assume everyone has complete access--equal opportunity for one and all to pray and plea. Well, maybe so, but you have some convincing to do for West Virginia PVA President Randy Pleva--a soft-spoken, long, tall gent, who roams his state's hills diligently seeking equal access for all--or faithful parishioner Roger Harris--a New England PVA member from Woonsocket, R.I.

Pleva writes in the WVPVA newsletter The Rolling Mountaineer, "I received a letter from one of our members about an ADA issue in McDowell County. After reading the letter, I could not believe that something like this could ever happen. [As with] every ADA issue we receive, I travel to that town and perform an investigation. I went to Welch and spoke with Sheriff Don Hicks. I must say that what is going on is unbelievable.

"Sheriff Hicks has made the building where his office is located completely accessible, except for three steps going into the building. Materials for a ramp have already been purchased. While Sheriff Hicks and Mr. Lambert, president of the County Commission, were busy looking at how and where to build the ramp, court secretary Donna Sparks went to Judge Booker T. Stephens and informed him that the sheriff and commissioner were constructing a handicap ramp behind the sheriff's building.

"Judge Stephens talked with the sheriff and commissioner and looked at where the ramp would be when completed. It would interfere with one of eight parking spaces (in which only six people park). Judge Stephens threw the sheriff and commissioner in jail for building a ramp to the sheriff's office. Chief Justice Margaret Workman upheld Judge Stephens's order."

Pleva, who never backs down from an issue when he knows he is right (especially when he goes up against two-faced politicians), was even threatened with being tossed in the poky if he sets his wheels in Judge Stephens's territory.

Then there is Harris's access issue with the church folks at his boyhood parish. He wrote a letter to the local newspaper's oped page: "Since childhood I have been a parishioner at the St. James Baptist Church, in Woonsocket. I am also [a wheelchair user] due to an auto accident in March 1994.

"Since my accident I've traveled up and down the East Coast, mostly by airplane; played wheelchair basketball; attended advocacy and legislative seminars in Washington, D.C.; participated in veterans' wheelchair games in Seattle, Wash.; and performed volunteer work for the New England chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. So you can see that my physical disability has not impaired my other abilities.

"Of all the places I've been, I had independence to enter and exit any place I wanted to go. Here at home, it's an entirely different situation. I joined the church at a very young age. I am now wheelchair dependent, and our church is not wheelchair accessible. There is no ramp, elevator, or lift. The only way I get in is by waiting outside for enough people to come out and help lift me up the stairs. This...has become very frustrating for me, my family, and those who are obligated to provide assistance.

"The church says it does not have funds to pay for ramp installation. However, it has made other major renovations, such as [purchasing] a brand-new $15,000 air conditioner and new carpeting; [painting] the interior and exterior; and [installing] handicap- (not wheelchair-) accessible rest rooms. These rest rooms are down yet another set of stairs.

"Just this past Sunday,...the pastor asked all the members to stay for a few minutes to vote on a new project--buying the house next door to the church! As I sat in my usual spot in the back of the sanctuary, my eyes filled with tears as he made the announcement. I couldn't believe what was happening.

"The church voted, unanimously, to approve the loan to purchase the house, which will be used for an educational facility for our Sunday school program. Will they install a a ramp? Will they turn away a child who cannot walk?

"Right outside the entrance to my church, after being lifted down the stairs. I had a heated discussion with my pastor, associate pastor, and a couple of deacons The Rev. Vaughan, my pastor, said that the ramp was an individual thing and that the house is for the church as a whole.

"I think he's wrong. A ramp would make the church more accessible, not just for me but for elderly parishioners who have trouble with stairs or for anyone who is injured or may become incapacitated due to age. I told him I know people who would like to come to St. James, but they can't climb the stairs. They walk--but can't climb stairs.

"Then he said, `Well, the church just can't afford it right now.'

"I said I wouldn't be coming back to St. James for worship. After more than three years of dealing with this situation. I've had enough.

"Last January I gave the trustee-board chairman a copy of a brochure from one of the area's many portable-ramp companies. He told me he brought it up at the church business meeting, and they liked the idea--but nothing else has been done about it. If finances [are] a problem, perhaps the church could have a fund-raiser. A few members are in the construction business; maybe they could get together and build something in compliance with ADA.

"Even though churches are exempt from [ADA], isn't the purpose of the church to `seek and save the lost'? I really wonder if this is the mission of this church. In the past few years I have experienced quite a bit of emotional loss."

Eventually, Randy and Roger will win their respective battles. However, in this enlightened day and age, it is sad that they must continue to fight the access war.
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Title Annotation:updating accessibility access
Author:Crase, Cliff
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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