Planners Must Assure Access for Everyone

Glenn Hall, the chairman of the East Hampton Town Disabilities Advisory Board, made a powerful point recently in reacting to a proposal from the developer of a Montauk commercial building to place a handicapped access entrance at the rear of the structure instead of the front. 

In a written statement, Mr. Hall compared the message of a rear entrance to segregation, citing “back of the bus” and “separate but equal” treatment for those unable to use stairs. The matter was a civil rights issue, Mr. Hall said. We agree.

On Aug. 22, the East Hampton Town Planning Board reversed an earlier, nonbinding vote that had rejected Mr. Hall’s assertions. The change came after the town’s chief fire marshal noticed several potential problems with a rear access ramp. 

The turnabout is welcome, but it calls into question how planning board members could initially have voted 5 to 2 in a July straw poll in favor of rear access at the South Euclid Avenue building despite having already received — and presumably, read — the disabilities committee’s objections.

As the population ages, the need increases for better ways for less-mobile Americans to get around, shop, and do a whole host of routine errands. That the planning board could have looked favorably at a front entrance only for those able to climb a short flight of stairs, while relegating those who could not to an offensive back door, makes it clear that there is a lot more learning to do. It was made worse when the planning board appeared to have ignored a town committee until its chairman began to speak out. 

Some in Town Hall now appear to be taking more interest in the question of fair access to commercial and public buildings. A number of town officials, including Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, met recently to discuss the matter. They are doing the right thing in more aggressively taking on the issue. 

As part of the Americans With Disabilities Act, businesses and public and semi-public buildings are required to remove structural barriers so long as the work is “readily achievable.” The concept of readily achievable is subjective, but based on the idea that the work could be done without significant expense. The cornerstone of the act, and state and local building codes, is that goods and services be provided to people with disabilities on an equal basis with the rest of the public.