GUESTWORDS: The Cat’s Away

By Richard Rosenthal

   Whatever the task, I prefer to do it on my own. Most people with a disability do.
    Some of this has to do with the dangers of overhelp. Sometimes, a well-meaning friend or stranger, possibly unseen, will snatch my shoulder or arm to steer me down stairs or through a fast-closing door. Self-sufficiency also arms me against the hostility many feel for those of us who don’t see, hear, speak, move, or otherwise function ably. Suspicion and impatience of us permeate our language. Check the thesaurus. “Mindless” and “negligent” are prominent synonyms for “deaf”; “stubborn” and “impervious” for both “deaf” and “blind.” “Deaf,” “blind,” and “myopic” in themselves are often insults, as are “cripple,” “retard,” and “dumb.”
    Such attitudes are often extended to our intelligence and capacity to govern our lives. On extreme occasions, e.g., Sparta and the Third Reich, they have led to genocide.
    Not that I don’t welcome help when I need it, but the best help for me and everyone else is help that increases my self-sufficiency. In 1990, Congress decided self-sufficiency was not only compassionate but good for the economy and passed the Americans With Disabilities Act by a huge bipartisan margin — only six nay votes in the Senate. In November 2003, the East Hampton Town Board also acknowledged the value of self-sufficiency when in a unique action for towns with our small population — and also with a bipartisan vote — it incorporated essential provisions of the A.D.A. and the New York State disabilities access code into Chapter 102 of our town code. The village followed suit in 2005.
    About two years ago, with the town, state, and federal laws in place to ease my access to parking and buildings, I pushed my walker into my car and drove to our new Town Hall complex to pay a parking ticket in the Justice Court. Two handicapped parking spaces were located in the back of the building, in a notch just around a corner from the main entrance, which was also in the back.
    The parking area and the walk to the entrance were swarming with serious violations, all but one of which remain as I write this.
    There was no striping to mark the parking spaces, no access aisle between them to enable a disabled person to exit a car with a wheelchair or walker and ascend to the sidewalk. There was sufficient space for an aisle, but an old lamppost, left standing where the curb cut would have to be located, barred the way.
    The curb in the parking area was impossibly high for a wheelchair user to ascend, dangerous even if pushed by an aide and unsafe for people using walkers. The maximum legal height for a curb cut lip is five-eighths of an inch. The actual curb height throughout the parking area was 10 times the legal limit, more than seven inches.
    To reach the court’s entrance, one must wheel or push through the street and around a right-angle turn with limited visibility to spot oncoming cars. The street was pitted, knobby, and clustered with manhole covers protruding from the pavement like Galapagos turtles.
    I reached the ramp that led up the sidewalk and made it to the court’s door. The ramp, a haphazard pack of asphalt that resembled a cow pancake, was bumpy and narrow. I managed it, joined a crowd entering the building, and barely escaped as the heavy front door, probably acting on automatic controls, suddenly slammed shut at me.
    The above happened nearly two years ago, in the spring of 2011. The town board listened courteously to my ensuing complaint. When little happened, I filed a complaint with code enforcement, which promised a response in a week. I also told the Disabilities Advisory Board, ostensibly the town’s eyes and ears on disabilities matters. Only the danger of the slamming door was attended to and I’ve yet to hear back from code enforcement.
    As I write this, the parking scene remains untouched. There is a simple solution. Eight parking spaces facing Pantigo Road at the front of the building, near a short, level path to an entrance, are already in place. They have been reserved for police and court employees. Eight more spaces can be added by paving over a few feet of lawn. There would be more than enough for disabilities spaces as well.
    There were important violations in other buildings. The new town board meeting room lacked an assistive listening device, another requirement of the A.D.A. A thousand East Hampton residents can’t follow town board proceedings without one. Such devices are as easy to install as P.A. systems. I reported its absence in 2010 and again several times in 2011. It took the town board almost two years and several reminders before it was in place. In 1993, Tony Bullock, the town supervisor at the time, installed an assistive listening device in the old Town Hall within a month of his promise to do it.
    The village has also been lax. It took an inquiry from the Suffolk County Disabilities Advisory Board to the mayor’s office before grab bars were installed in the bathrooms of one locally popular restaurant and before another moved a booth a few inches to allow access to its bathrooms.
    How could all this happen, this shrug-off of a pragmatic, compassionate law? Must the Justice Court flout the very laws it enforces and the town board the federal and state laws it must obey? Where were the code enforcement inspectors? How could the project’s architect sign off on its compliance with the A.D.A.? Did some aesthetic vision of a “museum without walls” Town Hall complex override consideration for the civic life and legal rights of the town’s disabled population?
    The dismissive trend suffuses the town. Much attention is paid, rightly I feel, to the spilling out, noisy crowds in Montauk’s summer weekend club scene; none, as far as I’ve found, to how such businesses manage to overlook the simplest disabilities access laws. One example — a popular Montauk club, which received its certificate of occupancy in 2005, has over 60 parking spaces, two of which are reserved for Zipcars, but none for handicapped parking. Legally, they should be providing four.
    The fervent frugality of business following the financial panic of 2008 cannot explain violations that long precede it, the nonenforcement by our government, or hesitancy of our advocates. Implementation can’t have been complicated, especially the readily achievable portions, when most of our law merely incorporated provisions that were already in effect at the federal and state levels. President George H.W. Bush implemented almost all of the A.D.A. within a year of its passage. In East Hampton, it’s now nine years.
    The cat’s been away and the mice are playing.

   Richard Rosenthal has been disabilities officer for the Town of East Hampton and chairman of the Suffolk County Disabilities Advisory Board.