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THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Meeting new standards that require buildings to be accessible to the handicapped may be easier for companies in Maryland than in other states that have less stringent rules already on the books, state officials say.

The proposed federal rules say that stores, restaurants, banks, theaters, hotels and offices must take specific new steps to accommodate people who are disabled in any way.

The rules would "further what we've done in the state of Maryland," according to Marian Vessels, special assistant to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the Governor's Office for Handicapped Individuals.

Maryland building codes mandating accessibility to the handicapped in new structures have been in effect since 1975.

The new rules, Vessels said, will require accessibility of all buildings, regardless of when they were erected, "as long as it's possible, feasibly and financially. Right now, people are not required to do that unless they have federal funds."

Kanti Patel, chief of design and review for the Maryland Building Codes Administration, said current state requirements include parking spaces and rest room facilities designated for the handicapped, elevators and doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, elevator buttons and drinking fountains that can be reached by people in wheelchairs, ramps that provide access to buildings and fire alarms for the hearing impaired or the blind.

The new federal standards, published recently in the Federal Register, would implement the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The law established comprehensive civil rights protection for people who are blind or deaf, use a wheelchair or are otherwise disabled. In passing the law, Congress estimated that 43 million Americans have physical or mental disabilities.

The stated purpose of the rules is to make sure that any new or redesigned facilities will be "readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities."

The regulations apply to all "places of public accommodation and commercial facilities," including everything from baseball bleachers to automated teller machines.

"We are living in a good state that still has a long way to go," said Gloria Carpeneto, executive director of the Maryland Center for Independent Living.

"It's not only so much employment places and other 'biggies,' but the every day kinds of things -- the movies and the roller rinks," she said.

"If you want disabled people to be really mainstream, it's those little nuances that are the 'niceties' . . . and that's what a lot of us are really looking forward to."

The law prohibits discrimination in general terms. The rules, scheduled to take effect next January, specify how thousands of businesses must consider the needs of the disabled in new construction.

Individuals and businesses have until March 25 to file comments on the rules. The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which drafted the rules, will consider the comments before issuing final regulations.

The rules would not require immediate changes in existing buildings. But if any portion of a building is remodeled or renovated, that portion would have to be made accessible to disabled people. Under the rules, a building could not be altered in any way that made it less accessible.

The rules are full of details. Here are some examples:

* Disabled people, including those in wheelchairs, must have full access to all checkout aisles in grocery and other retail stores.

* At least 5 percent of the tables in a restaurant or a library must be accessible to people with disabilities, and two-thirds of the eating area should be accessible.

* A new mathematical formula must be used to calculate how long elevator doors must stay open to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, walkers or crutches.

"Most of our buildings . . . already are accessible to the handicapped," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. However, he said, there will be some compliance problems.

Though many of Baltimore's buildings were constructed since the code went into effect, the state still has many old buildings, Vessels said. And some businesses say they fear the costs of compliance could be high.

But Lawrence W. Roffee, executive director of the compliance board, said, "We don't think accessibility is expensive."

Vessels agrees, adding that a company's resistance to making accessibility changes may be misguided. Many businesses don't recognize, she said, that losing a disabled person's business may affect other business as well.

"Let's take a restaurant, for example," she said. "I'm in a wheelchair, so if I can't go to a site, that means my husband, my family or my friends won't go with me. So, they're not only losing my business.

"Sometimes all it takes is a little creativity to make a building accessible," she said. And smaller businesses that may not be able to afford renovations will have an opportunity to challenge the law in federal court, Vessels adds.

"That will be done on a case-by-case basis," she said.

Some Maryland businesses are optimistic that they can conform to the new requirements.

"We don't envision any problems," said Barry F. Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant Food.

"Our company has a long standing commitment to providing access for wheelchair shoppers," Scher said, adding that Giant stores have provided several handicapped accessible features including parking spaces and bathroom facilities, even before Maryland's code went into effect.

"Today, all Giant stores are accessible," he said.

"Frankly, I think Baltimore, because of its building codes and zoning, stacks up extremely well," compared to other cities, said Wayne Chappell, executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitor's Association.

"All I can tell you is that we've gotten rave reviews from [handicapped] meeting planners . . . and they have thought Baltimore is terrific."

When Haussner's Restaurant on Eastern Avenue remodeled the exterior of its building over 10 years ago, "we specifically made the door [at the end of the building] wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair," according to Stephen George, general manager.

The restaurant's bathrooms have also been remodeled for the disabled.

"We are basically completely handicapped accessible," George said.

Ken Hable, general manager of The Prime Rib in Baltimore, said the restaurant would "do anything to accommodate our customers -- the cost wouldn't really figure into it."

The restaurant has a elevator to take diners from the garage directly to the lobby, and after that there are no steps, Hable said. The restaurant has quite a few handicapped patrons, he added, and "I've never had one complaint."

Susan A. Castle of Phoenix, one of 23 members of the compliance board appointed by President George Bush, said, "These guidelines mean that 43 million Americans with disabilities will be able to participate in nearly everything the country has to offer."

In restaurants and libraries, the standards would apply to immovable booths and tables. The proposed rules say 5 percent of the rooms in a hotel, motel or dormitory, 10 percent of the patient rooms in a hospital, 50 percent of the rooms in a nursing home and about half of the drinking fountains on each floor of an office building must be fully accessible to disabled people, including those in wheelchairs.

The rules would permit the installation of "unisex toilets" when it would be "technically infeasible" to modify the men's and women's rooms to accommodate disabled people.

The rules prescribe how many parking spaces must be reserved for disabled people and specify the maximum slope of ramps and the maximum pile height for carpet (one-half inch), noting that a steep slope or plush carpet cannot be navigated easily in a wheelchair.

The 1990 law explicitly required the government to issue standards guaranteeing access for disabled people to public accommodations. Any private entity whose operations "affect commerce" was deemed to be a public accommodation. Under the law, private clubs, churches and other religious organizations are exempt from the requirements.

The rules may be supplemented by additional requirements issued in the next six months by the Justice Department. Disabled people or the Justice Department may seek a court order to enforce the law.

Violations may be punished by a civil penalty of up to $50,000 for a first offense and $100,000 for any subsequent offense.

Under the law, the new standards would apply to shopping centers, convention centers, travel agencies, barber and beauty shops, dry cleaners, gas stations, drug stores, lawyers' and doctors' offices, insurance offices, funeral homes, museums, parks, schools and colleges, as well as shelters for homeless people. The rules say that all meeting rooms at a conference center would have to be accessible to the disabled.

The law requires that many forms of transportation, including subways, rail passenger cars, cruise ships and hotel shuttle buses, be accessible to people with disabilities. The government will issue separate rules for those services later this year.

Proposed accessibility rules

Following are some of the rules proposed by the federal government that will govern new places of public accommodation to make them readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.

* Disabled people, including those in wheelchairs, must have full access to all checkout aisles in grocery and other retail stores.

* At least 5 percent of the tables in a restaurant or a library must be accessible to people with disabilities, and two-thirds of the eating area should be accessible.

* A new mathematical formula must be used to calculate how long elevator doors must stay open to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, walkers or crutches.

* Five percent of the rooms in a hotel, motel or dormitory, 10 percent of the patient rooms in a hospital, 50 percent of the rooms in a nursing home and about half of the drinking fountains on each floor of an office building must be fully accessible to disabled people, including those in wheelchairs.

* A certain number of parking spaces must be reserved for disabled people and the rules specify the maximum slope of ramps and the maximum pile height for carpet (one-half inch), noting that a steep slope or plush carpet cannot be navigated easily in a wheelchair.

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