Fifteen years ago, when activists for the handicapped began demanding better services, Anne Arundel County set up a special program for the disabled. But people in wheelchairs couldn't even get into the office.

The county initially opened its Office of Disability Serviceson the second floor of an Annapolis building with no handicapped access.

Although the program has since moved into a first-floor office onWest Street, the snafu underscores the basic access problems often faced by the handicapped.

Even modern office buildings and parks can be difficult to negotiate, a group of county residents said Wednesday night. They complained that bathrooms frequently aren't wide enough for wheelchairs, entrance ramps can be too steep, handicapped parking spaces are limited and few buildings have phone systems for the deaf.

A county task force is studying how to correct problems with handicapped access, transportation and employment to meet new standards mandated by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Considered the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the 1960s, the measureoutlaws discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations.

"It's an enormous challenge," said Anne Gibson, coordinator of the Office of Disability Services. "This is the newest and largestminority group."

The county has earmarked $400,000 to begin renovating its buildings in the next months. Under the new law, which requires that employers change standards and attitudes to accommodate thehandicapped, it's no longer enough to have ramps and elevators. Buildings also must have everything from accessible bathrooms to easy-to-reach coffee machines.

Members of a task force subcommittee met Wednesday night to select the first county-owned buildings for modifications. Ray Shutty, assistant chief of facilities, narrowed the list of 250 county buildings to the top 15 used by the public. Among them are the Arundel Center, the Health Department, the Heritage Office Center and several senior centers.

"Some of these are nearly in compliance;others are quite a bit away," Shutty said.

Four disabled residents asked to give feedback at the meeting pointed out flaws that weren't readily apparent. Howard Nickelson, who uses a wheelchair, said he struggles every time he goes up the ramp to the Arundel Center.

"Is there a ramp in front of this building?" he said. "Yes, but I get a hernia coming up here. And it's almost impossible to open the door."

Steve French, the area representative to the Maryland Association for the Deaf, said many buildings don't have fire alarms with lights to warn the hearing impaired. He also encouraged installing more loop systems, which magnify conversations, and better paging systems.

To comply with the new standards, the General Assembly passed alaw this year ordering a tax-supported telephone network for the deaf. But French pointed out that the system won't be running at full speed until 1993.

"I think we're doing a lot, but I think we can do more," he said, speaking aloud and in sign language. "Our first priority has to be to educate people to change the indifference to handicapped people in general. We have to show people that we are handi-capable."

He and the other residents suggested that the county inspecttheArundel Center, the Heritage Office Center and the Health Department for renovations. The subcommittee also decided to stock county buildings with surveys asking employees and passers-by for input.

Saying that the most simple flaws can create lasting problems, Gibson suggested that the four disabled residents tag along on the inspections. More than 43,000 disabled people in Anne Arundel County will be affected by the renovations.

Rosalie Nickelson, who chairs the county's Aging Advisory Council, called for improving the libraries and parks. Downs Park lacks adequate parking for the handicapped, while Quiet Waters Park has extremely steep, rough hills that are dangerous for wheelchair users, she said.

The county intends to correct accessproblems over the next three to five years. Another $1 million is expected to be set aside for improvements in the upcoming fiscal year.

Shutty said he believes a "lack of awareness" caused the simple mistakes that make life more difficult for the disabled. With new guidelines and continuing pressure by advocates for the disabled, he said the problems gradually will be eliminated.

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