By Elizabeth Stevenson
Assuring access to justice is a key priority of the Oregon State Bar. I am concerned about how this plays out in our courthouses and any other place where we lawyers do our work, serving the public, serving justice. I know bureaucracies move slowly, and these things take time, but can we perhaps move a lot faster to do a lot better?
It's been more than 10 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. For the most part, there has been a tremendous increase in the general public's awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities in the work place and in public places in general. Most businesses and employers have found that accommodating the disabled is not that costly and brings tremendous rewards.
And yet, consider the work week of Alice Plymell, a Lane County practicing lawyer since 1963. She was one of the first women lawyers to practice in Eugene. She is physically disabled. Her every movement must be planned in advance: the reach of her hand, the position of her feet … To sit in a chair she must first pull herself out of her wheelchair with all her might and then move slowly, one limb at a time, willing her body to move at its own exacting, sometimes exasperating snail's pace.
Every day Plymell gets up and goes to work in her seventh-floor office downtown, where she has a small estate planning and probate practice. Often she needs to make the three-block trip to the Lane County Courthouse to check court records. It used to be a fairly simple trip, until the Lane County Courthouse moved the entryway from the first floor to the second floor a few years ago.
Plymell was elated when the ADA was enacted in 1990. She argued successfully to have a door-opening button installed in the entryway of the first floor of the Lane County Courthouse, and it's still there. But a few years ago Lane County decided to move the main entryway to the second floor of the building. The change was made ostensibly for security reasons, but the state court administrator in charge of the trial courts in Lane County says it was simply a matter of aesthetics: The courthouse's owners, the county, wanted the public to come through its imposing main entrance instead of the ground entrance around the side. The building is, to be charitable, 'modernistic,' built in 1959. The formal main entrance of the courthouse is up a flight of steps and is actually on what is considered the second floor. This means that people in wheelchairs (and some people with more limited abilities like the elderly or those with impaired mobility) cannot easily access the courthouse's front door. For those without motorized wheelchairs, the ramp designated for wheelchairs is too steep. Even if they make it to the top, the front entryway of four massive doors lacks a button to open the doors.
Once inside, past security, there is yet another set of stairs leading to a bank of elevators. There is a lift for wheelchairs, but it has a weight limit, and anyone using an electric wheelchair with all the bells and whistles is too heavy for that ramp.
If Plymell makes it to the inside elevators, the buttons are too high to reach from her chair. If she wishes to go to the fourth floor, she must hope someone else will be in the elevator to push the button - or she must remember to bring a big stick along! If Plymell makes it to the fourth floor, the probate department's doorknob is the old fashioned round kind, not the more easily moved hook type. If she gets the knob turned, the door is too heavy to easily open and wheel through.
All of these problems make Plymell's ordinary work day a long and taxing one, and she's understandably sick of it. If there is any doubt that people in wheelchairs are really discouraged from entering the Lane County Courthouse, consider this: The public parking lot across the street from the courthouse (run by a private company) is clearly labeled 'No Handicap Parking.' People with wheelchairs are told to go to a parking lot somewhere else!
The Oregon State Bar's 2000 report on The State of Access to Justice in Oregon notes, 'The physically disabled recorded very high levels of need for representation in cases involving all forms of discrimination (47.4 percent), health (35.6 percent), public benefits (34.9 percent), consumer law (34.6 percent) wills and estates (30.9 percent) and discrimination on the basis of disability (16.8 percent). Problems with cases involving abuse or neglect of the elderly for this group were somewhat higher than average.'1
If access to justice is really an OSB priority, can we not put our heads together and do whatever it takes to make our offices and courthouses physically accessible to all people?
1. 'The State of Access to Justice in Oregon,' sponsored by the Oregon State Bar, Oregon Judicial Department and the Office of Gov. John Kitzhaber, M.D., March 31, 2000, by D. Michael Dale.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Stevenson, an active member of the Oregon State Bar, is a researcher of hearing disorders at Oregon Health Sciences University and an investigator of hearing disorders at the VA National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research.