Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Question of Access

This is an interesting lawsuit. A disabled person is suing the National Park Service (NPS) over a failure to adhere to the ADA. They can't access many of the trails, buildings, and features of national parks, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The lawsuit is a test of the limits of the ADA
The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in San Francisco, contends that the Park Service and its local administrators have “systemically discriminated against plaintiffs on the basis of their disabilities,” failing to make adjustments, required for decades, to assist people with restricted mobility, poor or no vision, hearing loss or other needs.

“To some extent it’s a money issue,” said Laurence Paradis, a lawyer and the executive director of Disability Rights Advocates, the public interest law center leading the legal challenge. “But to a larger extent, there is a lack of commitment to the overall concept.”

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is not the only park with barriers to access in the system, which comprises 400 parks, trails and monuments.

But Mr. Paradis, who uses a wheelchair, said it was a good candidate for the federal challenge, in part because the San Francisco Bay Area is considered the birthplace of the disability rights movement.

The Golden Gate recreation area is also the second most popular national park, with over 14 million visitors in 2007, more than the visitors to Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined.

Spokesmen for the National Park Service and the United States attorney’s office in San Francisco, which is representing the federal park, would not discuss the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the Golden Gate recreation area, Rich Weideman, said administrators had been meeting with Mr. Paradis and other disability rights advocates since 2006 to discuss the park’s physical barriers. The park service, Mr. Weideman said, has invested millions of dollars to correct problems at Bay Area attractions and elsewhere. He pointed to Alcatraz Island, where special vehicles move people from the dock to the cell house, accessible to all visitors since 1988. The coastal trail at Lands End was upgraded for $3 million, he said.
The first obstacle to making many locations more accessible is the lack of funds to make it happen. The NPS has many competing needs, and ADA compliance has to struggle against capital construction, including repairs to existing national park facilities. A similar suit against the California state park system resulted in changes that totaled more than $100 million. There's no indication how much this will cost nationwide, but I'd expect that the costs will be passed on to the public who views the sites - in the form of higher entrance fees.

Some of the changes will definitely enhance the experience for not only disabled visitors but all visitors - improved bathrooms and more paved trails and/or railings to allow visually impaired visitors to travel without worrying about falling off steep slopes. However, it could also mean that the NPS may decide to close certain facilities or areas rather than try to make them ADA compatible.

For example, does it mean that the NPS has an obligation to make the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon ADA compliant? What about the Angels Landing Trail in Zion? You can repeat that question for many of the more famous trails around the country, some of which are extremely rugged and are unpaved and transit severe slopes. It's an interesting question, and one that is being tested by this suit.

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