Great handicap button courthouse debate

Monday, October 17, 2005

If there is ever to be $4,300 this county's taxpayers don't want to save, it would be the paltry bucks that would be saved by doing away with an electronic door opener for the disabled at the Buena Vista County courthouse.

Does it make sense to spend $60,000 to build a disability-accessible ramp up to the courthouse, as code stipulates, and then save a few grand by not installing the kind of door some of these people will need? Nope, but that's exactly the discussion going on in chambers this week.

The project architect dutifully tells supervisors of that big blue button, "Legally, you don't have to have it."

It isn't a matter of legality, it is a matter of doing the right thing.

Courthouse maintenance guy Dewyne Stucynski, who has been around a long while and is the kind of practical fellow that it pays to listen to, says he was surprised to find that they new disability entrance would not have the electronic button that the entry previously had before the improvements. He warns that even with a lightweight pull door, some disabled patrons will not be able to get into the courthouse, and there will be complaints.

The architect said the lightweight-pull door could be put in and supervisors could then wait and see if the disabled people could manage it.

Spend the money. Do it right.

Supervisors had quite a discussion. To their credit, they realize that accessibility to a courthouse is vital, and they also want to see cost numbers before making a decision. So it should be.

Yet, there's no need for a windy debate here, or a blue-ribbon committee study.

Here's what you do. Go out to the medical center and ask to borrow a wheelchair. Plop a county supervisor in it, and let them roll to the courthouse. Try the reserved parking spot, sidewalk, ramp, doors, restrooms, elevators, counters, pay phone, water fountain, the whole nine yards. In about an hour, they'll know what needs to be done.

Some years ago, about the time the city was looking into accessibility issues as it redesigned city hall, this newspaper conned former Mayor Sandra Madsen into spending a day in a wheelchair, just as a disabled citizen might. I tagged along with a camera, to make sure she didn't cheat. She fought the parking lot, wrestled with curbs, sweated doors and steps and sinks and high counters that most of us never think twice about.

Well before the day was done, she was exhausted and cussing her second floor office, but she was admittedly somewhat enlightened. I don't know if it made any difference, but I can say that today, Storm Lake's City Hall is among the most accessibility-aware public buildings you will find, and we should be proud of that.

Don't guess what it must be like, supervisors, go find out. That's part of what leadership is about. Before a dollar is saved or a button determined unneeded, live a day as the most fragile of the people who depend on you do.

If you can't bring yourself to climb into a wheelchair, set the debate aside and go ask the people in town who use wheelchairs, power chairs, canes, crutches, walkers. How can we debate what they need without asking them?

People like most of us, the lucky majority, can't really know what it is like to be disabled. Even when we try the wheelchair, we have the advantages of legs that move themselves, strong hands and arms that are not withered by age or illness, the all-important knowledge that if we get stuck, really stuck, we can just get up and walk away.

The people we are thinking about here do not have that luxury. We owe them public buildings they can use, too. We never know when one day, we will be among those to whom a three-foot-door seems an exhausting challenge.

No, it is true, the law doesn't require us to do it. That's part of the reason we should do it anyway. We should not have to be required by anything except conscience.

Unless and until the mobility-challenged citizens of BV County tell us they don't want or need that big blue button, please put the thing in. There may be 4,300 good reasons to cut it and save. But one damn good reason to do the right thing is enough.