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: Fernandina Beach, Florida calls itself the birthplace of the American shrimping industry.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT)
SHAPIRO: Unidentified Woman: That's Polly the Trolley.
SHAPIRO: Polly is a little different from other trolleys.
WILLIE FOREHAND: 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.
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: 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.
WAN KIM: 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.
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.
JERRY SINCLAIR: 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: 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: Looking for shells and shark's teeth.
SHAPIRO: The chair is a relief for her mother, Sherry Fisher. In the past, she says...
SHERRY FISHER: 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: Unidentified Man: Oh, it's dolphin. Oh, my God.
SINCLAIR: Dolphins, we've even seen sharks here in the harbor, manatees, you name it.
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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