Activist for disabled criticizes grant to Western Maryland College


Disability rights activist Marilynn J. Phillips says a $2,000 state grant awarded to a Western Maryland College theater group should be rescinded because the group stages its productions in a building that is not accessible to disabled patrons.

The college was chosen early this month to receive the grant for its Theatre on the Hill group from the Maryland State Arts Council. The theater operates in Alumni Hall.

Ms. Phillips of Hampstead said the grant should be revoked because Alumni Hall lacks a handicapped-accessible route to restrooms.

College officials maintained that a soon-to-be completed renovation will bring the building in line with disability rights laws.

"Our understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act is that if an institution is making every effort to comply, that is considered compliance," said Henry Reiff, an associate professor of special education at the college who monitors compliance with disability rights laws.

"We've made every effort to have the renovation done for this season. But with a historic building, there are structural problems and design difficulties, and this has slowed the renovation."

Ms. Phillips, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, rejected the college's argument.

"The bottom line is, they just aren't allowed to get any public funds until they actually meet compliance," she said. "This may sound petty, but typically there's a lack of seriousness about the importance of accessibility."

Ira Domser, theater director at the college and producer of Theatre on the Hill, said the renovations to Alumni Hall should be completed within a month.

But Ms. Phillips said she's prepared to file a complaint with the appropriate agency if the Maryland State Arts Council doesn't rescind the grant. She argued that even if the renovations are finished soon, they weren't complete when the grant was awarded.

"I feel it's my obligation and my right, if I find something wrong, to make the Maryland State Arts Council do its job," she said. "Here we have another season where we can't go to the theater."

Theatre on the Hill, a professional summer group, was one of several arts groups chosen to receive Maryland State Arts Council funds. The $2,000 grant is to be used for the theater's general operations. The theater's total budget is $110,000.

Charles Camp, state arts council's grants officer, said that before grant money is made available, the recipients must sign contracts in which they agree to comply with state and federal civil rights laws.

Mr. Camp said he has not received a contract from Theatre on the Hill for the grant. But if the group signs the contract with the Arts Council, he said he will visit Alumni Hall to determine if the building is accessible to disabled people.

"When an organization with a previous problem agrees to a contract, we make a site visit to make sure the problems that previously existed have been resolved," he said.

Several years ago, Ms. Phillips filed a discrimination complaint against the college with the Maryland Human Relations Commission over accessibility issues. That complaint included Theater on the Hill.

In 1991, the commission determined that there was "probable cause" to believe that the college had not made an effort to make the building accessible.

Mr. Camp said he visited Theatre on the Hill two years ago and was shown plans to correct the accessibility problems in Alumni Hall. After Ms. Phillips' earlier complaint, Theatre on the Hill had not applied for any State Arts Council money until this year because of the access problems, he said.

In 1991, the Human Relations Commission also found probable cause to believe discrimination existed in two other buildings at Western Maryland College -- McDaniel Hall and Harlow Pool.

Ms. Phillips acknowledged this week that the college has completed major renovations to increase accessibility to the disabled in McDaniel Hall and the Harlow Pool building.

"The college has spent time, effort and obviously money over the past four years so that we can be a fully accessible institution," Mr. Reiff said.

But, he said, "You can't change the physical nature of an institution overnight, and that's why in 1995 we're still working on the renovations."

Ms. Phillips responded: "This is what people say all the time. My position is, they can be working on renovations for the next 20 years, and unless it's done it's not real."

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