School Board member Carol O. Wolf recently took to haunting the basement toilets at City Hall with tape measure in hand, seeking proof that city schools aren't the only public buildings that fail to provide access for the wheelchair-bound.
"I went down there with my old tape measure, and the doors are two inches too short to get in," Wolf says. "You can look at these handy-dandy handicap-accessible stalls but you can't get to them."
Wolf has been championing an effort to make Richmond's public schools comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but she's run into obstacles.
In 2005 Mayor L. Douglas Wilder removed $9.2 million in funds slotted for ADA upgrades to school facilities, which sparked a lawsuit by parents of handicapped children. (The city is appealing the judge's decision that it shares responsibility for making school facilities ADA-compliant.)
Earlier this month, Wilder announced that the school system wouldn't be getting $200 million for new schools as part of his City of the Future plan. He's also denied a budget request of $135 million, which school officials had partly earmarked for making facilities compliant with ADA.
"You can't be saying you support education and integration except for kids in wheelchairs," Wolf says. "Education is really fundamental to the whole concept of America."
In order to comply with ADA guidelines, restroom facilities must have doors at least 32 inches wide to allow for wheelchair access. The minimum space between doorways leading into a restroom is 48 inches.
By her reckoning, Wolf says the doors to the restroom vestibules at City Hall miss the mark. The basement bathroom doors measure 30 inches, she says, and the 90-degree turn between the inner and outer doors cannot be made in a wheelchair. "The only way you can get in there is to crawl," she says.
City spokesman Linwood Norman says he knows of a wheelchair-bound city worker who has no problem navigating the restrooms. Norman also detailed improvements made to City Hall since the ADA was passed in 1992. Those include full handicapped access to the building from Ninth Street, five reserved parking spaces in the building's basement garage and wheelchair-accessible customer-service counters.
But bathrooms seem to be lacking. According to Style's tape measure, taken to restrooms from the basement to the fourth floor, bathroom doors measure between 30« inches and 31 inches wide. The basement bathrooms are marked as handicapped accessible. Both men's and women's have devices to automatically open doors for handicapped users.
Norman insists that "the ground floor has handicapped-accessible bathrooms," noting that City Hall is "twenty-something stories high, so I believe there are some elsewhere, too."
The ground-floor bathrooms, both of which are too narrow to meet ADA requirements, are closed for renovations. Neither is marked as handicap-accessible.
Wolf is not surprised by the mixed messages. "It's about obeying the law," she says, "and Richmond certainly has had a history of massively resisting federal law." S