Access to PNC arts center criticized

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/16/98


The letters, faxes and phone calls started coming almost immediately after opening day. Disabled activists criticized the PNC Bank Arts Center for its recent renovation, saying the changes have made an already faulty facility even worse for people using canes or wheelchairs.

Arts center officials say a $10 milion redesign has made the facility more accessible.

But arts center officials bristle at the charges. They say the $10 million redesign has made the arts center in Holmdel more accessible to more people and, if it had not, their plans -- by law -- would never have been approved. They point also to some aspects of the original design that they cannot change.

For every argument the activists make, the arts center has a response, and the debate spirals on and on. The activists say this sort of push-pull is emblematic of what they typically go thorough in working to secure access for all -- whether it's fighting for a ramp at a town hall, handicapped parking at a diner, or special-needs toilets at a theater.

"It's frustrating," said Carolyn Schwebel of Middletown and co-chairwoman of the Equalizers, a local advocacy group. "We're almost fighting a losing battle," said fellow co-chairwoman Carmena Stoney of Aberdeen.

Schwebel said the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, is a good law, but does not carry enough weight. "It's up to us to enforce it with lawsuits and so on," she said. "If you're a poor person without a job, you can't do it. You can't sue."

The Department of Justice is good about investigating complaints, but even it can't check every bathroom in every restaurant in America. It typically focuses on high-profile cases, or cases that will carry a broader message, Schwebel said.

Meanwhile, local activists fight the local fight, whether it's the restaurant that has a ramp to the first floor but not the second, no-smoking floor; a ramp that fails to connect from Point A to Point B; the so-called handicapped parking space that isn't really accessible at all; the pretty brick sidewalks that are hell on wheelchairs and people with canes.

PNC Bank Arts Center officials, for their part, say they are confused by all the attention they have received. Their renovation was unveiled this spring, commissioned as part of the privatization agreement inked in 1996 with the N.J. Highway Authority. The former Garden State Arts Center is now run by GSAC Partners, a partnership of Delsener/Slater Enterprises and Pace Music. Under a separate deal, also signed in 1996, the center was renamed for PNC Bank.

They say they've expanded special-needs parking -- all van-accessible. They've added a special-needs entrance and ticket window and new ramps from the parking lot into the theater. They now conduct sensitivity training for all employees, even part-time summer workers.

Instead of just one section, there are now three types of special-needs seating -- loge, orchestra and lawn seating, because the ADA requires the same cross-section for disabled patrons as nondisabled patrons.

"For someone to say that in privatization, accessibility was compromised -- that's wrong," said Larry Rosner, the arts center's ADA consultant.

But Stoney, who walks with a cane, said the ramps are too steep. "It's worse now," she said. "I had a hard time walking up the incline."

What irks her most is that the special-needs lawn seating is separate from the main lawn area. "They are basically saying we have to stay in one special place," she said. "The Garden State Arts Center is segregating the disabled, and they don't see that."

The new special-needs lawn seating sections are actually two concrete pads, one on each side of the theater, each 425 square feet. Each disabled patron can bring only one guest because of space constraints. "What if I want to go with my friends, with my niece and nephew? I'm segregated," Stoney said.

Plus, "the sight line from handicapped-access lawn is zero," said Adrienne Sarno of Brick, who attended the Lilith Fair.

Arts center officials say sight lines are adequate, and they had no choice but to create separate special-needs lawn areas. "The amphitheater is built into the side of a mountain. It would never be built that way today," Rosner said. It would be too difficult to put ramps in the lawn area "because of the steepness, because of the features we inherited," he said.

"It's tough as hell on me when I work a concert," said Rosner, who lost his left leg below the knee from a gunshot wound and uses a prosthesis.

"I, myself, being disabled, I like to be included without too much fanfare," he said. But, "putting someone on the lawn can be problematic. What if their (wheelchair's) brakes fail on the lawn?"

"In Ocean and Monmouth counties, there are 125,000 declared disabled persons," Rosner said. Refusal to comply with ADA "is not just a violation of the law, but it's a foolish marketing decision."

But other people with special needs say the power of the pocketbook has not been enough to force businesses and municipalities to comply.

For one thing, the ADA contains loopholes. "If (a business) can prove that removing a barrier would cause undue financial hardship, they don't have to do it," said Patricia Curivan, of the Ocean County chapter of the New Jersey Coalition of Women and Disabilities.

Then there are the places that seem to comply, but don't. She's seen stores with the handicapped sticker in the window that are not actually accessible. The other day, she went to visit a doctor, and the handicapped-parking spot was right next to the curb cut. Because there was a car in the parking spot, the curb cut was obstructed.

Her husband was able to lower her wheelchair from their vehicle to the sidewalk, "but if I had been by myself, I wouldn't have been able to get in."

Department stores may be built to code, but often merchants will pack the selling floor with racks and racks of clothing, making it hard for her to maneuver. "Even moms pushing baby strollers have difficulty, and a stroller is narrower than a wheelchair," she said.

"It's very frustrating, because I know the law and I know my rights," Curivan said.

Schwebel, of the Equalizers, said that at one fast-food restaurant, the entrance to the ramp is raised off the ground. So while the ramp leads to the front door, someone in a wheelchair can't even get onto the ramp.

"It's funny. I guess if people don't have a disability, they don't know the little things mean a lot," she said.

Then there are the so-called handicapped parking spots that are really just regular spots with a sign. Handicapped parking is supposed to be wider, so a person in a wheelchair can get out of the space. As a member of the Middletown Human Rights Commission, Schwebel said she works with businesses to get them to comply. "You wouldn't believe how many times we've presented pictures on how to do a handicapped parking spot."

In the meantime, the letters, faxes and phone calls will continue. Even though it's been eight years since the ADA's passage, the coaxing, pleading and haranguing continues.

"Why should we have to push when eight years have gone by?" Stoney asked. "We didn't expect it to happen overnight, but we didn't expect it to be like this after eight years."

Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: August 16, 1998