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Plattsburgh Fights for Their ADA Rights!

Interesting article on the fact that even today people are having to fight for their ADA rights in Plattsburgh. Read how these ordinary citizens are changing their enviroment around them so that they can lead a more accessible life.

People with disabilities say they’re still fighting for civil rights in Plattsburgh. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, everyone is guaranteed equal access to buildings, no matter what their physical or mental ability is. But activists in Plattsburgh say the city is breaking that law.

Longtime activist Debra Buell has a hard time getting into city hall. She uses a motorized wheelchair. The first thing, she said, is that the ramp on the side of the building is usually blocked off by cars. Then, “the door is too heavy for many people with disabilities to open.” That includes her. Buell said she has had a number of diseases, including multiple sclerosis. When she is in city hall, Buell said there isn’t a bathroom she can use. There’s one with an accessible sign on it, but it is actually too small and cramped to fit her chair. “Okay so you’re in the middle of a meeting, trying to be a participating person in government, right?” she said. “I want to attend the whole meeting if it’s two hours long and I might need to use the bathroom.”

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, this inaccessibility is a violation of federal law. “Locally operated buildings and programs and services must be accessible to people with disabilities. Period,” said Law Professor Arlene Kanter, director of the Disability Law and Policy program at Syracuse University. She said access to a place like Plattsburgh city hall should be a major priority for lawmakers. “The Supreme Court has said that certain buildings and services where people vote, where people go to be in court, or city hall where they can petition the government, they should be in maybe the front of the line.” Kanter said not having an ADA-compliant city hall is “inexcusable” in 2015.
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Plattsburgh’s mayor, Jim Calnon, agrees. He even used the same word. “It’s inexcusable that we don’t have an entrance that people can get in. It’s inexcusable that we don’t have a bathroom if we can get someone with a disability in here.” Calnon said the city is earmarking funding for power doors and bathroom repairs. He says it will be a portion of $300,000 already set aside for improvements at city hall, and he hopes the work will start before the year’s end.Calnon said city hall isn’t the only building that’s out of compliance. He said the city recreation center and finance department also need attention. Advocates like Debra Buell added to that list a courthouse, the facilities at the public beach, the county government center. But the mayor said accessibility is one of many issues that the city has to deal with on a tight budget. “This is a critically important issue but it’s not the only issue on our plate.” This is where advocates strongly disagree. They say accessibility should be at the top of the list.

“This city is not accessible. It is not compliant with the ADA. Coming downtown is a nightmare,” said Robert Poulin, Executive Director of the group North Country Center for Independence. Poulin is legally blind. He is calling on the city to do a formal ADA compliance audit, and then develop a strategic plan for updating the city’s buildings. “The ADA is a civil rights law,” he said. “And they can’t keep treating it like oh, well, that’s a minor thing and we have important things to do in the city. Well, what is that saying? That people with disabilities aren’t important?”

Poulin delivered that message to city councilors last week at city hall. He wasn’t physically at city hall; he took the option for people with disabilities and Skyped in from the public library. “We don’t expect things to get fixed overnight. Of course not. That’s not reasonable. We don’t expect that there’s going to be money to fix every problem right away. But if there had been a plan 25 years ago, we would be much further along than where we are today,” he said.

Greg Lyman of the advocacy group NCCI tests out one of the bathrooms at the city’s new marina building. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Greg Lyman of the advocacy group NCCI tests out one of the bathrooms at the city’s new marina building. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Here’s where things get complicated. The disability advocates themselves are sending mixed messages about one specific building: the city’s brand new marina. They say it’s not fully accessible. Poulin called it “an example of code enforcement failure.” That’s a serious accusation, because under the ADA there are some exceptions for older buildings, but the rules are strict for new construction projects like the marina, which opened in May.
Kevin Farrington, Plattsburgh’s city engineer, worked on the marina. He rejected the idea that the city didn’t follow the law. “That building can only be characterized fairly as an excellent example of accessibility,” he said.

Even the advocates can’t always agree. On a recent tour of the building, Poulin’s own accessibility consultant, John Farley, said the marina does follow all the rules. “Yeah there were some issues that we had with size,” Farley said. “We all agreed on the size and that worked out very well.”

That’s the kind of stuff that’s frustrating for Mayor Jim Calnon. And he said activists are trying to rush the process. “The call seems to be, that ‘we’ve asked you for this audit. Why haven’t you given us this audit,’” he said. “Well wait a minute. It really is, slow down. We have things and we’ll get there.”

But Poulin and Debra Buell said they’ve already waited long enough. Buell said she just wants to be able to move around independently. “And so this is what I’m talking about. I am talking about being treated like an adult citizen,” she said.

Mayor Calnon said he hopes the Common Council will consider an audit and plan in the next couple of months as they work on the city’s budget. The activists aren’t holding their breath.

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