Whenever Merry Adams, who uses a wheelchair, goes to Legislative Plaza to make her voice heard on an issue before state lawmakers, she can exercise her democratic rights only for a short time. That’s because, even 17 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, none of the plaza’s bathrooms is accessible to the handicapped.
Adams has heard nightmare stories of people in wheelchairs becoming wedged inside the bathroom stalls. It’s taken rescue missions to dislodge them. If they somehow make it onto a toilet, they can’t unlock the stall when it’s time to leave unless their arms are really long. Friends have had to slide on their backs under the door into the stall to help. So when Adams visits the plaza, she never goes to the bathroom.
“The length of time that I’m there is dictated by the size of my bladder,” she says.
To force the state to obey the law and to make the plaza’s bathrooms accessible, Adams or another disabled person might have to sue. You’d think Tennessee would have learned its lesson by now.
In a celebrated case among the disabled, two people who can’t walk had to sue to gain access to Tennessee’s county courthouses. One was Beverly Jones, a single mother and court reporter. She worked in various Tennessee courthouses, but courtrooms were on upper floors and reachable only by climbing stairs, so she sometimes had to ask complete strangers to carry her up the stairs. A judge once had to pick her up out of her wheelchair and put her on the toilet in a courthouse without an accessible bathroom.
Another plaintiff, George Lane, had to crawl up the stairs to the second floor of the Polk County Courthouse for a hearing. The judge and courthouse employees were standing at the top laughing at him. His case wasn’t heard in the morning session, and he crawled back down during the lunch break. When he refused to crawl back upstairs that afternoon, he was arrested for failing to appear and sent to jail.
Jones and Lane’s lawsuit was filed in 1998 and dragged on for six years because the state of Tennessee fought it so hard. Tennessee insisted “state’s rights” prevented the federal government from enforcing the rights of the disabled. Specifically, Tennessee contended that the 11th Amendment gave the states immunity from lawsuits under the A.D.A. The U.S. Supreme Court finally voted by a 5-4 margin to uphold the right of the disabled to sue to enforce the protections that the A.D.A. gave them.
Despite that decision, Legislative Plaza’s bathrooms have remained inaccessible. Only last year, the 32-year-old plaza underwent a $14 million renovation. Leaking roofs were fixed, moldy ceilings were removed, hearing rooms were remodeled, escalators and carpets were replaced. But nothing was done to the bathrooms. At the time, Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, asked state architect Mike Fitts why not.
“I said, ‘You’re doing all this renovation,’ ” Westlake recalls. “‘You really ought to think about the bathrooms.’ ”
“‘That’s not really on our list,’ ” Fitts told her.
Westlake says her organization has considered suing the state, “but we have tried to work on voluntary compliance first.” Still, she says, “Tennessee is not exempt from the A.D.A., and they’re not grandfathered in. I would argue that they are in violation and they’re getting away with it.”
Under pressure from the disabled, the state has hired consultants to study the cost of renovating the eight men’s and women’s bathrooms in the Plaza. That study isn’t complete. Once it’s done, it’ll go to the state Building Commission for consideration. Fitts wouldn’t guess how long the process might take or whether any funds will ever be made available.
“It’s a matter of economics,” Fitts told the Scene.
One estimate says it could cost $2 million. That’s a small amount in the state budget. Even so, lawmakers could spend much less than that initially. Westlake says the disabled would be satisfied if, as a first step, the state would make one stall in a men’s and a women’s bathroom accessible. How much could that cost? Less than lawmakers routinely spend fixing up their own offices. Senators alone have spent about $150,000 on office renovations in the past two years.
During one of Merry Adams’ visits to the plaza this session, she went to a Senate hearing on legislation affecting the disabled. A half-dozen other people in wheelchairs were there, clogging the aisles because there is nowhere else for wheelchairs to go in the hearing room. “What’s this, a telethon?” one lobbyist complained.
“That’s pretty much the way people look at us,” Adams says. “We’re not taken seriously. When we have accessibility problems, people think, ‘Hey, the gimps can’t get out.’ This is 2007 and A.D.A. passed in 1990. It’s only taken 17 years for the state to think, ‘Wow, maybe we should do something.’“So I am not very impressed with the speed with which they are complying with the A.D.A.,” Adams continues. “It’s a lack of political will. It’s not a priority for them and they don’t give a damn. They don’t consider people with disabilities a strong enough voting force. They don’t consider us a threat to their political careers. That’s sad.”
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