By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
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By Howard Cole
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By Leif Haven
Paul Church just wants to roll to the next level. Staring at the escalators flowing between floors at the Embarcadero Center mall, he scoots backward slightly, spinning his wheelchair around each way. He peers down the walkway for a security man or anyone else who might help him find his way to the second floor, but there's no one. A nearby map of the mall displays the blue-and-white wheelchair symbol indicating an access point down the corridor, but it's unclear whether the symbol indicates an elevator, a bathroom, or what.
"If I was a tourist, or someone who has never been here, what would I do now?" asks Church, a 40-year-old quadriplegic who serves as access coordinator for the city's Independent Living Resource Center, a disabilities activist group. "This city, as a major tourist mecca, ironically has nothing for the disabled tourist. Even its Tourist Center is primarily inaccessible."
In fact, much of the city remains beyond the reach of people like Church. Scores of restaurants, motels, hotels, museums, and office buildings -- even the city's public transportation system -- fail to provide equal access for wheelchair users, the blind, and the deaf.
Many of San Francisco's disabled say they feel like second-class citizens here, even though it's been more than a decade since California made equal access the law with the passage of Title 24, and more than five years since the president signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The city is just beginning to address a 1994 court settlement that grew out of a suit filed in Superior Court by the Oakland-based Disabled Rights Advocates (DRA). Currently, the city faces a backlog of about 280 unresolved complaints about handicap access, some dating back more than four years, says Larry Paradis, DRA executive director and a wheelchair user. Businesses cited in the complaints go beyond "mom and pop" operations to include Blockbuster Video, the U.S. Passport Office, and Bank of America.
By law, the city must enforce state handicap access codes when granting building permits for new buildings or those undergoing more than $80,500 in renovations. Remodel jobs costing less are only excused if the applicant can prove hardship in meeting the codes, while applicants for historical buildings must prove that making the structure accessible poses a threat to its value. If the builder fails to meet codes, and a complaint is filed, the city must investigate and, if necessary, bring an enforcement action against the proprietor.
Yet, Paradis says, virtually no lawsuits have been filed, and few actions have been taken by the city since Title 24 was passed in 1982.
In one ongoing complaint, the Marines Memorial Theater has been accused of sending disabled people needing a restroom to the 10th floor rather than making accessible those restrooms near the ground-level entryway. ADA codes require that disabled facilities in public buildings be readily accessible, whenever possible.
The city's noncompliance with the settlement and its lax enforcement of the laws prompted DRA to file a second Superior Court suit on Feb. 5. It seeks an injunction against the city and county, as well as Frank Chui, the city's building inspection superintendent, for failing to live up to that 1994 settlement.
Among other things, the suit claims that the department remains understaffed and poorly trained, and that it "consistently and intentionally approved plans for illegal buildings which violate state access laws." By comparison, Oakland has few problems with disabled rights groups and virtually no backlogged cases on file, Paradis says.
"We are lucky to get two or three complaints a year," says Calvin Wong, Oakland's deputy director of planning and building. "That's because we've been working with the disabled community for years, and have been creative in finding ways for people to comply no matter the hardship."
By the time Title 24 was passed, Wong says, Oakland had already begun to enforce its own codes. San Francisco didn't feel pressed to do the same, he believes, because the state took the lead in enforcing the law. Today, he says, San Francisco's building inspectors often call Oakland to ask his staff how to handle certain access problems, an indication that San Francisco is dealing with many of the complaints for the first time.
"The situation has gotten worse instead of better," Paradis says. "The problem is that the city does not treat this as a basic civil rights issue. It never has."
As part of the 1994 settlement, the city was to form a task force on handicap access and reduce backlogged complaints by 90 percent within a year. Thus far, no task force has been created and the number of complaints has grown by half. And while at least two new inspectors were to be hired to deal specifically with access issues, only one has been added to the three-person staff. Worse yet, Paradis says, one inspector was recently made a supervisor, effectively leaving the department with no additional bodies in the field.
The suit also alleges that the city extends waivers to some property owners who argue that so few disabled frequent their establishments that it makes more sense to carry people in wheelchairs up the steps than to build a ramp.
It's easy to blame business, but Paradis points the finger at the city. "The city is not budgeted to keep up with the scope of the problem," he says.
Deputy City Attorney Judy Boyajian, who handled the access case before the task was passed on to Deputy City Attorney Kate Zoglin, argues that the city was given three years to meet the settlement's demands. In addition to providing training and staff development in the past year, she says, the Building Inspection Department has been busy reworking procedures on access issues.
She notes that the Independent Living Resource Center has not signed on as a plaintiff in this most recent suit, suggesting that's because the group is satisfied with the city's progress. Handicap access sources say, however, that the center is holding off any legal action to ease its current negotiations with the new administration.
While Boyajian acknowledges that the city has a long way to go in bringing itself up to code, she blames building owners and the business community for not taking more responsibility in improving access on their own.
"A lot of the times things are not correctly drawn to code and the plan checker does not catch it," she says. "But there is never a 100 percent guarantee."
When asked for her views on the problem, Zoglin hurried off the phone, saying she knew little about the issue and that she would rather not lend her name to this story. Chui also declined to talk about the suit or anything to do with disabled access codes.
Meanwhile, those in wheelchairs continue to deal with a prejudice as subtle as heavy doors on public buildings, or as glaring as a Muni driver unwilling to strap a wheelchair user in.
"I know I am a reminder of people's worst nightmare. But I'm just trying to get through my day same as they are getting through theirs," Church says as he navigates his wheelchair around Embarcadero Center, searching for a way out.
Chances are he won't be back.