Doable: Inaccessible doctors' offices a test of patience
Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/25/04


Does the sidewalk at your doctor's office have a curb cut for wheelchair access? If you don't know, that's understandable; it's one of those details most of us never notice until we need it. But you might reasonably expect your doctor to notice.

Unfortunately, some don't, as Eleanor Garafano of Toms River discovered when she drove her husband, who is quadriplegic, to an appointment at a cluster of mostly medical offices in Brick Township.

"We had to leave because I couldn't get him into the building," she said. She said the absence of curb cuts made it impossible to maneuver his electric wheelchair onto the curb. And another barrier, a small step, loomed beyond the sidewalk.

"I think the public should be made aware of how difficult some people make it for handicapped people," she said. "Building owners should be taken to task for this. And why would a doctor rent in a building that's not accessible?"

When Garafano queried the landlord, she was told the structures were "grandfathered in," meaning they predate the Americans with Disabilities Act and do not apply to the law.

But the oft-cited granddaddy exemption doesn't exist under the ADA, according to a Guide to Small Businesses published by the federal Department of Justice: Barriers should be removed where "readily achievable," meaning without excessive difficulty or expense, proportionate to the size of the business.

A curb cutout, including removal of the old concrete, would likely cost well under $2,000.

"Granted, they have multiple buildings," Garafano said of the medical complex, "but they're getting multilple incomes."

Inaccessible doctors' offices is a pet peeve of Colleen Odel Multer of Brick, whose multiple sclerosis and years of disability rights activism have landed her in struggles over accessibility at area municipal facilities, shopping centers and medical offices.

"It's mind-boggling to think of a healer -- who has sworn an oath to take care of his patients -- not making sure his patients can get in to see him," she said.

"I like to think doctors are intelligent and compassionate. I think it's an unawareness. Even after they are told there's a problem, I have a feeling they put it on a back burner because maintaining an office and schedules get priority.

"However, since tenants pay rent, they have the clout and responsibility to tell the owner their patients can't get in," Multer said. "We as the public should not have to track down the owner of a building. We shouldn't have to enforce this."

Many people with disabilities and their families have little time and energy to fight for ADA enforcement. Yet they need to speak out, Multer said, "or nothing will change. We're so used to barriers being there that we don't always realize the rights we have to equal access."

She recommends reporting problems first with the ADA compliance officer in your town and following up with a call to the mayor. Also, elected officials -- like assembly members and senators -- are often interested in the issue.

"There's no excuse (for inaccessible buildings) because it doesn't cost that much. Things can be done," Multer said. "It's all doable. But the will and desire has to be there."

Linda Walls is a parent and grandparent of people with disabilities ranging from deafness and Tourette's syndrome to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Her column appears in the Home & Family section. Write to her at the Asbury Park Press, 3601 Highway 66, Neptune, NJ 07754 or e-mail or call her at (732) 449-0696.