Parish courthouse not in ADA compliance

There are no handicap accessible restrooms in the parish courthouse. The only accessible restrooms for wheelchair users are located across the street from the courthouse and inside the administrative offices of the old Southern Hotel.

Bruce Crouch and Yada Mark are in front of the parish courthouse in Covington. The front door is too heavy for Mark to open on her own. (Staff Photo by Leslie Ackel)

Covington News Banner
December 20, 2002
BY Leslie Ackel

(Second in a series)

COVINGTON - St. Tammany Parish government, its courthouse and its agencies located in downtown Covington have continued to operate from non-ADA compliant offices since adoption of the act in 1992.

The News Banner recently surveyed parish government and two municipalities to find out if they are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title II of the act called for compliance measures to be completed in all local governmental facilities nationwide by Jan. 26, 1995, but local government has fallen behind on recognizing passage of a major civil rights act, one that would have allowed persons with disabilities equal opportunity to access the enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges and advantages of American life.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Title II, a civil rights act signed into law by President Bush in 1990, has been hailed as the most important civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is the 20th century emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.

The Title II section of the law refers to all "public entities" in regard to all state and local government buildings. It simply defines the law encompassing all activities, services and programs of public entities, including courts, town meetings, police and fire departments and employment.

To define a person with a disability in accordance with the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. These major life activities include functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, breathing, learning and working. These numbers include disabled war veterans.

When the ADA law was passed in 1990, the federal government, giving consideration to the financial burden that structural compliancy could initially put on budgets, gave every governmental entity until July 1995 to bring its buildings into accessible code for persons with disabilities. Beyond that date, all entities classified under Title II have been considered in non-compliance with federal government standards, leaving themselves vulnerable to lawsuits and garnering the reputation of considering themselves "above the law."

The St. Tammany Parish Courthouse on Boston Street was one of the buildings studied. A report furnished by parish officials concerning ADA compliance of the St. Tammany Parish Administrative Complex buildings at Koop Drive was also considered.

During the survey it was discovered the St. Tammany Parish government had neither an ADA coordinator, a self-evaluation plan nor a transition plan in place since the federal government instructed every parish and county seat to do so by July 26, 1993.

St. Tammany Parish facilities director Bruce Crouch has now been appointed ADA coordinator for the parish.

The new parish judicial complex being constructed in Covington and scheduled to open in May is being built to adhere to ADA accessibility guidelines, according to Richard Lambert, chief engineer on the project.

But if a citizen with a disability was to have been called for jury duty or apply to work in a parish agency at the Boston Street courthouse and Southern Hotel administrative offices, in use for the years since the disabilities act was signed, those persons would not have had access to rest rooms, working elevators, telecommunication devices, adequate parking spaces and auxiliary aids.

Inside the parish courthouse there are no handicap accessible rest rooms. The only accessible rest rooms for wheelchair users are located across the street from the courthouse and inside the administrative offices at the old Southern Hotel.

Accessible parking places marked with wheelchair access isles are mandatory requirements for all government and public building parking areas. Until this study was under way, only two poorly marked parking spaces were designated for courthouse use on New Hampshire Street. Crouch arranged within one day to add a handicap van accessible parking place marked in the lot beside the building to assist in our study.

Interior study of the courthouse, conducted with Crouch and Yadi Mark, a wheelchair user and St. Tammany Parish resident, revealed the interior doors are not equipped with levers and each weighs considerably more than the maximum five pounds allowable. The doors of the elevator that transports people to the second floor courtroom would not open without use of force, so how might a wheelchair user report for jury duty? No "grandfathering in" of any public building exists, whether old or historic. This is a common misconception. If a building is open to the "public," it should be accessible to all the public and comply with the civil rights act.

Under Title II of the ADA the standard on accessibility is based on program accessibility as opposed to structure accessibility. Therefore, if a wheelchair user were chosen to serve on a jury, the court room used for the trial must be held in an accessible location. This applies to any public meeting or program.

Auxiliary aids are required to be offered to people in need of this service. For instance, if a blind person wishes to attend a parish or city council meeting, the governmental entity must provide an agenda in braille. For a deaf person, an American Sign Language interpreter must be hired to interpret the meeting.

At the time of this survey, Suzanne Parsons, director of intergovernmental affairs for St. Tammany Parish, said the parish government has neither an American Sign Language interpreter nor the ability to print an agenda in braille.

According to the ADA, all public notices should list the local ADA coordinator's phone number so the person requiring assistance can alert the coordinator of their special needs. This short notice of assistance is not currently offered on the parish agenda for public meetings of the Parish Council.

The Koop Drive Administrative Complex on Louisiana Highway 59 in Mandeville, built in 1995, currently serves the offices of the parish manager, the Department of Development, the engineering department, the Department of Public Works, the Department of Finance, the Environmental Services Commission and cable communications. It is also the assembly place for public Parish Council meetings. These buildings are handicap accessible, according to a report supplied by Parsons. Following the survey, Crouch said some improvements would be made to the courthouse facilities.

The Department of Justice sponsors an assistance program for government ADA coordinators to learn the specifics of compliance with the ADA guidelines. There are three stages to a project where the federal regulators have worked with government officials to help them understand how to come into compliance with ADA standards.


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