Polio survivor wages battle for the disabled


Peter Raimondi is pressing malls, retailers and restaurants to help him and other disabled people.

The 77-year-old Bel Air resident and polio survivor has written letters to a slew of stores and shopping centers, requesting battery-operated carts for disabled customers. He knows that laws do not require businesses to provide carts.

But rather than base his request on moral or ethical footing, he puts forth a practical appeal: Millions of disabled people in the United States have billions of dollars to spend and would do so more readily if they could shop comfortably.

"It's smart business," he said. "Why would you turn business away? What [stores are] doing is they discourage the people who can spend money from coming in there."

After having no success with his initial letters, Raimondi wrote another letter earlier this summer. This one went to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, claiming discrimination by six malls and department stores under Article 49B of the Maryland Code. The law prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, among other areas.

"I want people to really understand how difficult it is that we run into these mountains," Raimondi said of people with disabilities. "All we're asking for is the same opportunity that everyone else gets."

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act and state law say establishments must provide reasonable accommodations for the disabled, which includes nearly 77.5 million Americans older than 5 who are not institutionalized, according to a 2003 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Carts aren't required

Under the ADA, motorized shopping carts are considered "personal devices," meaning businesses are not required to supply them, said Marian Vessels, director of the Mid-Atlantic Region's ADA & Information Technology Center in Rockville.

Three of Raimondi's complaints - against Hecht Co., Bed Bath & Beyond and General Growth Properties Inc., which owns seven malls in Maryland - were rejected by the state commission as unreasonable. The remaining complaints - against Harford Mall, Sears and Kohl's - are being investigated.

Glendora C. Hughes, general counsel for the state commission, said she could not comment on Raimondi's complaints because the investigations are ongoing. Representatives from Sears, Hecht Co., Kohl's and Bed Bath & Beyond declined to comment. An official at Harford Mall had declined to comment because she had not received a copy of Raimondi's complaint. A spokesman with General Growth said the company does not discriminate against customers and fully complies with ADA regulations.

Raimondi said he will appeal the rejected claims. He said he wants to tell investigators how businesses are neglecting disabled people by refusing to provide carts. He cites a 1998 U.S. Department of Labor report that estimated the discretionary spending of disabled people at $175 billion, nearly twice as much as teenagers.

Case for, against carts

Some businesses, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target, offer carts. At the Wal-Mart in Owings Mills, four battery-operated shopping carts have gotten so much use recently that they are being serviced weekly instead of monthly, store manager James Slankard said. Despite requiring regular maintenance, carts are good for business, he said.

"We want every customer ... and that means servicing every customer," Slankard said.

A representative with Mart Cart, an international company that bills itself as "the leader in electric carts," said a cart costs about $2,500. But the cost of buying and maintaining carts does not make financial sense for many stores, an official with the National Retail Federation said.

"Retailers are doing it because they feel they have enough need to warrant them," said Daniel Butler, the federation's vice president of retail operations.

Advocacy history

A Kingsville native, Raimondi contracted polio as a 7-year-old in 1935. He has walked with a cane most of his life, and began using a second cane after breaking his hip several years ago. He worked in sales, including 30 years selling lumber. Today Raimondi tends to his shop at Dundalk's Plaza Flea Market on weekends.

Raimondi's advocacy efforts date to 2002, when he filed a complaint against the owners of his condo complex for not having "curb cuts," which are slopes in curbs joining a sidewalk with the street.

Though that issue has yet to be resolved, Raimondi began looking at other, similar problems. Most troublesome for him were the long walking distances in shopping malls, which forced him to pick one store to visit before entering the mall.

"I'm asking [businesses] to give the disabled an opportunity to shop in comfort," he said. "I don't want to say that perhaps they're embarrassed when disabled people come in their stores because they walk in a different matter, because they look different. That would be going back to the 1930s when they had that stigma there. I would certainly hope that's not the reason."

Other advances

Largely because of ADA, businesses made strides accommodating disabled customers in recent years, said Andrew J. Houtenville, director of the Disability Demographics and Statistics Center at Cornell University. Employees at many stores undergo sensitivity training and stores have taken the "big box approach," with wide aisles and as little clutter as possible, he said.

These changes move stores toward a universal design, which ultimately helps all customers, Houtenville said. Curb cuts, for example, not only make access to stores easier for the disabled, but for parents with strollers and for hand truck deliveries, he said.

"If you provide benefits for people with disabilities, it will help everyone else," he said.

If Raimondi's appeals to the state are denied, he said he will take his complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

"It's a tough fight," he said. "My father, when I was just learning to walk, said, 'Pete, if you persist, you will win.' And I will persist with what I am trying to do until I win."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad