KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- Being able to walk into a favorite store is something many do not think about, but for a fair number of people in Bennington County, some planning is needed to get where they are going.
To make that easier and ensure places of public access are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Vermont Center for Independent Living is hosting a meeting on June 13 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 200 Pleasant St., from 4 to 6 p.m., for people with disabilities or mobility difficulties to share their experiences as well as learn how they can make the law work for them.
Charlie Murphy, a peer advocate counselor for the VCIL in Bennington, said a similar meeting was held in Burlington a number of years ago and resulted in improved access. That meeting, and this one, are open to "stakeholders," which includes people who are disabled, their family members, care givers, business owners, those who manage places of public access, and members of the American Association for Retired Persons.
Murphy said more meetings will likely be held around the state in the larger towns where the VCIL has offices.
He expects the meeting will cover more than just access and there will be questions about health care, but one thing the VCIL can do is educate people on how they can use the Americans with Disabilities Act can be used. Murphy said the law is enforced "from the ground up," by citizens. There are no ADA "compliance police."
What Murphy recommends is before a person with a disability seeks help from the Department of Justice, which enforces ADA, they first talk with the owner of the business where access is an issue. People should ask if the owner if they have a short-term plan to remedy the situation and if they have a more long-term solution in mind. He said the law can be somewhat complicated and in some cases a business or town is exempt when the cost of providing access would be prohibitive, but there are cost effective solutions that locals have made work. He said for example a local person who uses a wheelchair calls ahead to the business where they can not access and their items are brought out to them.
In the early 2000s, Jeanne Park, was able to get a number of businesses to improve access by installing remote door openers, according to Murphy. He said the weight of some doors makes opening them difficult for some people and the ADA applies, but Park, through writing letters, was able to convince many large businesses, including the United States Post Office in Bennington, to install the mechanisms.
Kim Brittenham, civil rights manager for the VCIL, said when people do need to file an ADA complaint they can learn about how to do so by going to www.ada.gov.
She said for the most part it’s incumbent on businesses to work ADA compliance into their business plans, but sometimes upgrades can be paid for if the businesses are part of block grants awarded to municipalities.
Murphy said the VCIL can do assessments for businesses to tell them what they would need to do to be ADA compliant. He said it usually includes things like installing ramps, accessible bathrooms, and sometimes elevators.
He said he thinks access has been better in Bennington in recent years, but there is still progress to be made. "People talk about the sidewalks being rough," he said.
Murphy said anyone who needs an accommodation should contact him by June 10, or if they want to RSVP or get more information. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-445-3015.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.