Access Denied

How accessible are Jacksonville’s public buildings and sports venues for the blind, for those in wheelchairs and those with other physical and mental disabilities?

The city has reached a settlement with the Justice Department to fix an estimated 2,000 violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ranging from parking and inaccessibility problems to minor issues, such as a toilet paper holder in the wrong place.

For people, like J.T. Townsend, a quadriplegic since a 2004 football injury in high school, and Erica Turner, who has a blinding disease called retinitis pigmentosa, the ADA issues represent problems that can affect the quality of life.

“The ADA is a big deal,” said Carmen Townsend, the former athlete’s mother.

For Townsend, his mother said, the lack of handicapped parking is one of the biggest issues she faces trying to get him to buildings Downtown. That issue is among the complaints the city will have to address as it works to comply with the ADA violations over the next five years.

On a recent trip to the Main Library Downtown and the One Spark festival, handicapped parking was almost non-existent, Carmen Townsend said.

“Where do you let him out? In the middle of the street?,” she said.

Turner, who uses a cane to get around, described the minefield encountered by a blind person when entering a public building, like the new Duval County Courthouse. For her, it was the steps and the area leading up to the steps that rattled her confidence.

“Even with the use of my white cane, I could not be confident in navigating the steps without my husband’s assistance,” she wrote in an email.

“This can be dangerous for someone who is visually impaired or totally blind, in that it could mean the difference between being confident in their cane skills to adequately navigate the stairs or becoming severely injured,” Turner wrote.

Many lavatories were cited for improper braille labeling of restrooms.

“Without braille, large print or accessible doorways for the disabled, business and government offices are hindering the independence of the disabled community,” 
she continued.

Not everyone has had problems getting into city buildings. Donnie Vann, who has been a wheelchair for 30 years since he broke his neck in a diving accident when he was 15, 
said he has not had any problems getting around EverBank Field or Bragan Field at the Baseball Grounds.

“For the most part, they’ve been very accessible,” he said, adding that he uses an oversized wheelchair.

While most of the construction and design issues did not occur on Mayor Alvin Brown’s watch, he has vowed to fix all the problems, at an estimated cost of $5.5 million.

“Together, we are taking significant steps to ensure accessibility by focusing on accountability and responsibility,” Brown said in a news release.

Beth Meyer, the city’s ADA coordinator, said most of the violations covered in the settlement are minor, including coat hooks that are too high or don’t exist, toilets that are too high, wheelchair ramps that are too steep, countertops that are too high and myriad other complaints.

“We’re in good shape, compared to some of the other cities,” she said. Jacksonville was one of 189 cities surveyed by the Justice Department under Project Civic Access. Other Florida cities include Fort Myers, Port St. Lucie, Miami, Coral Gables and Fort Walton Beach, and Lafayette and Citrus counties. The ADA report does not rank the cities, but Meyer said Jacksonville has its own ADA staff and a committed mayor.

“The biggest things we are working with are sidewalks and curb cuts,” she said. The city has five years to make those fixes.

“This is not a wholesale rebuild,” said David DeCamp, a mayoral spokesperson. He said most of the violations are minor and scheduled to be repaired over the next two to three years, according to the settlement agreement.

City Council President Bill Bishop agreed that most the items on the list are “small and incidental,” but should be handled as quickly as possible.

“I am not trying to minimize any of this,” he said. “If you have one bathroom out of compliance and someone needs to use it, then it’s a problem.”

But in most cases, the violations are not a hardship for most people, he said.

Bishop, an architect, would not characterize the standards as too strict or picky.

“It is very nuanced. It’s very technical,” 
he said.

In the report, Jacksonville City Hall has 10 violations, starting with two in Council Chambers. The power door push button outside chambers is inaccessible — a plant box is in the way. If someone makes it in the door, the ramp is inaccessible because the handrails are not continuous.

“Why was that not done in 1997, when the building was built — who the heck knows?” Bishop asked. “It doesn’t cost any more to build a continuous handrail.”

Often called the crown jewel of minor league parks, Bragan Field has a number of problems making it inaccessible to those with disabilities, starting with parking lot “P” reserved for the handicapped.

According to the ADA report, it’s inaccessible because there are no access aisles — the extra spaces beside parking spots that allow for easier access — and a route to an elevator behind home plate is inaccessible because the ramp has a slope of 6.6 percent. The acceptable slope percentage depends on several factors, but generally it’s 4.5 percent.

Key components to Mayor John Delaney’s Better Jacksonville Plan were improvements to the library system, including a new Downtown Main Library. But the library, which offers a number of services for disabled people, is not a friendly space for those who are in a wheelchair, are blind, or can’t operate heavy doors.

The automatic door button at the Laura Street entrance hasn’t been kept in working order, the report states. The doors at the Main Street entrance require six pounds of force to operate, while the interior door button requires 10 pounds of force. Five pounds is the accepted standard, Bishop said.

The information and security counters range from 38.5 inches to 43.5 inches, according to the ADA complaint — much too tall for a wheelchair-bound person.

One of the violations stated there was insufficient handicapped seating in the library’s 391-seat auditorium. Meyer said there are eight handicapped seating areas; the standard calls for a minimum of six.

Only two problems are documented at the Downtown Supervisor of Elections Office, including a curb ramp with a slope of 13.5 percent and a cross slope of 3.8 percent on the route from the parking area to the entrance.

In addition, Jerry Holland’s Office was told to ensure that all polling places are accessible. All voter registration materials must be available in alternate formats, including 
braille, large print, audio and electronic. Poll workers must be trained on the rights of disabled voters.

Dozens of problems are noted concerning EverBank Field, and many deal with lavatories, drinking fountains protruding into walkways and lack of space for wheelchairs.

The Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens challenges handicapped visitors as soon as they park. Inspectors found the lot was inaccessible because a golf cart was parked in one of the access aisles, and the route from the parking lot to the main entrance has a 9.9 percent slope with no ramp features.

Slopes throughout the zoo prevent wheelchair access. Similar problems exist at the entrance to Metropolitan Park, where no curb ramp is provided, the ADA report noted.

Meyer and other city officials agree that one of the biggest challenges to implementing the new settlement is the massive number of sidewalks and curb cuts needed around Jacksonville, which has more than 3,600 linear miles in roads, streets and highways. The city has five years to make those improvements.

One the largest problems has yet to come up on the radar of federal ADA officials because it wasn’t completed during the inspection period — the new Duval County Courthouse. Bishop called the year-old building “an ongoing problem child.”

“They [problems] are well-documented and may well end in litigation,” he said.

Mayor Brown has decided to spend $281,450 to add 98 automatic door openers at the courthouse. The large doors required too much effort for the handicapped to open. After months of trying to get the problem fixed by the contractor, the mayor decided to repair the doors so that handicapped folks would have access the building. His office is still trying to get the contractor to pay the bill.

The Mayor’s Disability Council, a group that advises the mayor on disability issues, reviewed the plans and endorsed the solution.

In a letter to the mayor, it praised Brown for “his unwavering commitment” to serve the disabled community.

“Our first priority in Mayor Brown’s administration is ensuring people have access to public facilities,” said Aleizha Batson, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.