Fla. Town's Efforts a Disabled-Access Success Story
SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division enforces laws that protect minorities from discrimination. For the past few years one of the division's top priorities has been disability rights enforcement. Project Civic Access is a program the Justice Department created to help cities and counties comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
Fernandina Beach, Florida calls itself the birthplace of the American shrimping industry.
(Soundbite of boat)
SHAPIRO: Center Street boasts historic shops, Florida's oldest saloon, and a trolley running back and forth from the beach.
Unidentified Woman: That's Polly the Trolley.
SHAPIRO: Polly is a little different from other trolleys.
Mr. WILLIE FOREHAND (Trolley Man): Well, I wanted to be the Trolley Man so bad, I was willing to do anything the city wanted me to do.
SHAPIRO: The city told Willie Forehand he'd have to give Polly a wheelchair lift.
Mr. FOREHAND: It just turns around to be the best thing you could ever do, once you learn that you put the lift on for handicapped people and service them also with the public. Then we're not shorting anybody, and everybody is served well, and it just works out good.
SHAPIRO: Fernandina Beach was the first city in the country to meet the terms of its settlement agreement with the Justice Department under project Civic Access. The city came to the Justice Department's attention after a resident complained that public facilities didn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. That's the 1991 law that requires public buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities.
More than 130 cities and counties from every state are now in settlement agreements, and the Justice Department hasn't had to take any of them to court. Wan Kim is head of the Civil Rights Division.
Mr. WAN KIM (Assistant Attorney General, Justice Department Civil Rights Division): The law is clear, and full compliance with the law 15 years after the fact has still not been reached and quite frankly has not been close to reached. It's a priority because the number of Americans with disabilities keeps increasing.
SHAPIRO: He is referring to America's aging baby boomer population and others who may develop disabilities later in life.
Mr. KIM: We're talking about people who by and large are extremely normal, productive members of society but for a disability that causes them to be less than capable in certain very limited facets of their life.
SHAPIRO: When the Justice Department first sent its letter to Fernandina Beach, Jerry Sinclair was the city's maintenance director.
Mr. JERRY SINCLAIR (Maintenance Director, Fernandina Beach, Florida): One time I thought, wow, they're going to be taking me off in handcuffs because I haven't done what I am supposed to have done. But in actuality, the experience was really pleasant.
SHAPIRO: Now, Sinclair is the interim city manager. Over three years, he and others worked with Justice Department officials to make the town's bathrooms, sidewalks and restaurants accessible to people with disabilities. Now there's even a wheelchair accessible charter fishing boat anchored at the local dock. The boat's captain gets prime real estate and low docking fees, and the town has two beach wheelchairs that let people with disabilities explore the surf.
They look like a cross between a Barcalounger and a monster truck. Today's passenger is 13-year-old Brittany Moore, who has spinal bifida. She likes to come down here for her favorite beach activity.
BRITTANY MOORE (Disabled Child): Looking for shells and shark's teeth.
SHAPIRO: The chair is a relief for her mother, Sherry Fisher. In the past, she says...
Ms. SHERRY FISHER: (Brittany Moore's Mother): You just put her on your back and carry her own down there. I'm sure that's how most other families have to do it. If they have someone with a disability that cannot get over the sanding, then what they would have to do is either carry them or, sorry, you're going to have to stay at home.
SHAPIRO: The city is still making upgrades. Workers just completed a new wheelchair ramp for the dock at the edge of the harbor. People often come there to check out nature, and nature sometimes checks them out too.
Unidentified Man: Oh, it's dolphin. Oh, my God.
Mr. SINCLAIR: Dolphins, we've even seen sharks here in the harbor, manatees, you name it.
SHAPIRO: City Manager Sinclair says before this upgrade somebody in a wheelchair wouldn't have been able to have that kind of a chance encounter with a wild dolphin, but now they can.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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