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Clayworks building found not up to code Activist complained about inaccessibility


In Mount Washington, it's a case of an arts center vs. the law -- and the result is costing a chunk of the center's budget.

When Marilynn J. Phillips, 54, a retired professor living in Hampstead, asked about taking a course at Baltimore Clayworks in North Baltimore last month, she was told the basement classrooms in the 1919 building are not accessible to people using wheelchairs. The narrow bathroom in the basement also did not comply with federal access laws.

"I was interested in the option of taking any one of their courses," said Phillips, who has used a wheelchair for 11 years because she contracted polio as a child. "But I was essentially precluded from taking a class at Clayworks."

The disability rights activist notified city and state officials of her complaint against Baltimore Clayworks, a ceramics center housed since 1980 in a rustic former branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The facts backed her up. Because the cultural nonprofit group receives about $30,000 a year in public funds, it is subject to Maryland laws on access to disabled people.

"Our regulations require organizations to be fully in compliance," said Charles Camp, accessibility coordinator of the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC), which administers arts funding to Baltimore and the state's counties.

When Camp visited Baltimore Clayworks to investigate Phillips' complaint, he found the three-story building "not fully in compliance with our standards."

All city and state support of Clayworks -- about $30,000 -- was cut off last week "unless and until Clayworks meets MSAC standards of accessibility," according to a letter written by Ira Schwartz, a state assistant attorney general.

"The situation is pretty clear-cut," Schwartz said Monday. "The letter speaks for itself."

Deborah Bedwell, executive director of Clayworks, said, "It's going to cost a bunch of money, but we will move forward as quickly as we can" to bring the historic building into compliance with laws enacted in the 1990s.

The $30,000 adds up to nearly 10 percent of the art center's planned $350,000 operating budget for the next fiscal year, which starts this summer. In addition, the cost of modifications could be as much as $30,000, Bedwell said.

One result might be that fewer classes -- now about a dozen at a time -- will be offered to the public, she said. Another proposal under consideration is moving basement classrooms to the gallery level, which can be more easily reached by wheelchair.

"Clayworks was founded by a group of artists and has always been a shoestring operation," Bedwell said. "It was never, ever our intention to discriminate against anyone."

Phillips found that state officials were more responsive to her letters than city officials, but criticized enforcement as "complaint-driven."

She also rejected one Clayworks class offered at an accessible site, the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens downtown, as an unacceptable alternative.

"The ADA [the federal Americans with Disabilities Act] is modeled after the 1964 Civil Rights Act," she said. "This kind of ghettoization segregates persons with disabilities from the mainstream. I want to learn with my peers."

Bedwell said she understands Phillips' point of view.

But, she added, "We're awfully small fish to fry."

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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