ANCHORAGE - Ten years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, businesses are still opening stores that aren't accessible, says Janel Wright, an attorney with the Disability Law Center in Anchorage.
Up a flight of stairs in J.C. Penney's new home store in downtown Anchorage, shoppers can look over fancy glassware, pots and pans, and dinnerware provided they can walk.
"How do I get up the stairs?" asked Eva James, looking up at the merchandise from her wheelchair. A clerk told her that was the only way up.
J.C. Penney renovated a space it already owned across the street from its main Anchorage store and was limited in what it could do, said Dallas-based spokeswoman Stephanie Brown.
The kitchen department is on a mezzanine level, and the ADA doesn't require elevators to reach mezzanines, she said.
James, 52, has rheumatoid arthritis that makes it impossible for her to stand and gnarls her hands so that she can't grip a door knob. She regularly canvasses Anchorage to see which places are easy to get into and which are not, popping in and out of public restrooms, shops, restaurants and hotels.
The problem runs the gamut, from restaurants to schools, Wright said.
Chugiak High School is under investigation by a federal civil rights office because of an allegation that the school discriminates against people with disabilities. Students in wheelchairs can't get up two steep ramps inside the school, among other problems. The school provides aides to push them. The Anchorage School District says the problem should be fixed during extensive renovations over the next couple of years.
The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts seats most wheelchair patrons in back rows. The city added a few wheelchair seats up front in the main theater, Atwood Concert Hall, after a lawsuit.
"They sort of fixed it, but they didn't fix it right," said Jayne Fortson, a doctor who uses a wheelchair and sued the city in 1993.
City officials and the center's staff said they've made the building as wheelchair-friendly as they can without tearing it up.
State audits done in the early 1990s found $55 million in renovations were needed to bring state buildings into compliance with ADA. Since then, the Legislature has approved money to make some fixes but left about $40 million in work still to be done.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to stop discrimination against people with disabilities by granting them the same access as anyone else to jobs, government services and businesses.
"The ADA was passed in part because of pervasive, persistent and entrenched segregation of persons with disabilities," said Jim Brady, coordinator of the ADA Partners Project in Alaska. The project provides technical advice on ADA.
Problems persist because some people see access not as a civil rights issue but as an architectural problem that boils down to cost, said Wright.
Ramps, grab bars and other changes typically add 1 percent to the cost of a new building, Brady said. If the changes are made during a renovation, it costs 2 percent to 3 percent more.
Meanwhile, there's no quick way to enforce the law. People who feel excluded can force change only through lawsuits.
In older, pre-ADA buildings, private businesses that serve the public are supposed to make changes that are "readily achievable." A bank might need a ramp to an automated teller machine. A video arcade should lower game machines. A restaurant with a ramp in the back should put a sign out front saying so.
Government agencies operate under a different standard. They must make sure programs are accessible, even if every building is not. But governments don't have to make changes that would result in "undue financial or administrative burdens."
The ADA intended access to get better over time, but instead organizations often use the exemptions allowed in the law to make excuses, Brady said.
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