Advocates for the handicapped and caretakers of the 1854 warship Constellation say they have agreed on a plan to provide wheelchair access below the ship's top deck without changing the ship's authentic appearance.
The Constellation Foundation has agreed to provide a hand-cranked portable lift between the ship's top deck and the gun deck seven feet below. The concession settles an accessibility suit filed last summer by the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.
"I believe we've come up with a solution that is not permanently affixed to the vessel, and does not require power. I believe we've overcome these issues," foundation chairwoman Gail Shawe said yesterday.
Lee D. Hoshall, assistant general counsel for the commission, said, "We're very pleased with the outcome. It advances the rights of persons with disabilities -- their rights of access to historic properties -- while at the same time respecting the need to protect historically significant properties from damage, destruction or alterations."
He described the settlement as the first of its kind in the nation.
The commission sued the Constellation Foundation in response to a complaint from Robert Reuter, a disabled veteran and activist for the disabled who complained he was unable to get his wheelchair aboard the ship in 1992.
The foundation initially rejected the notion of a wheelchair lift on the ship, which is undergoing $9 million in restoration work, fearing the mechanism would mar the vessel's authenticity, demand too much electrical power and pose a safety hazard in the event of a fire.
Shawe credited Reuter and the commission for doing the research that led to a lightweight, custom-designed Canadian-built lift that allayed the foundation's concerns. Its cost is estimated at $36,000.
The shipboard chair lift is a lightweight device that will be stored out of sight on the gun deck and wheeled into position when it's needed, Shawe said. It requires no permanent attachment to the ship, and no electricity.
Built by Adaptive Engineering, of Calgary, Alberta, the lifts are commonly used at train stations and airports, Hoshall said. "It's very easy to use."
Although most sell for about $9,000, the Constellation's lift will have to be modified, Hoshall said, resulting in a steep cost increase.
The Constellation Foundation has also agreed to install a second chair lift to carry handicapped visitors between the first and second floors of the ship's Visitors Center building on Constellation Pier. A wheelchair-accessible gangway will lead from the building's second floor to the ship's spar deck.
Once on board, visitors in wheelchairs will be able to reach most parts of both the top, or "spar" deck and the gun deck, Shawe said. But access will be de- nied to the ship's two lower decks -- the berth and orlop decks.
Instead, the foundation agreed to provide "alternative visual experiences" -- such as videotaped tours. As a safety measure, the agreement also will allow the foundation to limit the number of handicapped visitors on board at one time.
Shawe said she expects the building renovations and lift equipment on land and aboard the ship to cost at least $100,000. The foundation will seek financial support from corporate or foundation sources.
"If we can't raise the additional money, something else won't get done," Shawe said. "I am optimistic someone will come forward and we will be able to secure these funds. There is no question that we will make the changes."
The Constellation is the last all-sail warship built for the Navy.
Pub Date: 2/02/99