Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Viewed from wheelchair, 'small' hurdles enormous

Chicago Tribune  October 31, 1993

Linda Johnstone runs up against obstacles where most people see no problem at all. Often they're only an inch high.

Johnstone has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. On a visit to the restaurants and shops along Dallas' Lower Greenville Avenue, she pointed out hidden barriers that keep disabled people from living like others.

Viewed from a wheelchair, a door with a threshold higher than half an inch isn't a door.

"You don't think a half-inch is very big, but when you're trying to get up there in a wheelchair, it's like moving a mountain," Johnstone said. She works at REACH of Dallas, a non-profit resource center and advocacy group for the disabled. Johnstone provides technical assistance to businesses complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The new law requires that public spaces, including commercial ones, be accessible to the disabled. The law mandates that thresholds be no higher than a half-inch.

Though construction must meet specific guidelines, existing buildings need to comply only as much as is "readily achievable." The law may seem ambiguous to some, but Johnstone said there is always a way to accommodate the disabled. "If they wanted to do it, it can be done. It all depends on what the owner wants to do," she said.

During a walk with a reporter on Lower Greenville, there was no handicapped parking. None of the sidewalks-some of which are nearly a foot off the ground-had curb cuts.

The first stop for Johnstone was the Lower Greenville Antique Mall, a collection of small booths. Only one of the double doors at the entrance was unlocked, and it was too heavy for Johnstone to open. Even if she could, the single door was too narrow to allow her wheelchair through.

The owner ran to the entrance and offered to unlock the other door and help. Johnstone refused.

The owner, Joan Williams, later said she did not understand why Johnstone had refused help.

"We go out of our way to help people with disabilities," she said.

Williams said her store is accessible through the back, where a ramp leads to a locked door. An intercom will summon someone to unlock it. This is not good enough for Johnstone.

"We don't want to be catered to. We want to be part of the mainstream," she said.

Said Joan Magagna of the U.S. Justice Department's Public Access Section: "One of the underlying themes of the ADA is to provide independence to people with disabilities."

Later on her tour, Johnstone entered Cafe 450 easily. She praised the ease with which the front door opens, the height of the threshold and the wide aisles that allow her wheelchair to roll freely. But when she tried to enter the restroom, trouble began.

The ramp to the restroom was a little steep, she said, and a handrail would be useful. The door was too heavy and had a doorknob. She could not open it. "Now that is a very accessible bathroom, if you can get in it," said Johnstone. The toilet was elevated to allow access from a wheelchair and was situated between two handrails. The sink, soap and towels were all low enough to be reached.

"As far as I know, we met everything we were supposed to meet," said cafe co-owner David Goldstein. He said he is not familiar with the ADA but is trying to meet city codes. "If we didn't comply, it's because we didn't know." Sidebar.

By Sam Loewenberg. This article first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.