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Disabled access

  • February 19, 2010
  • Bruce Bromley

For North Carolinians in wheelchairs, a store’s failure to provide disabled access can be a deal breaker. If the merchant can’t be bothered to provide that access, then the customer will just do business elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we can’t take our business elsewhere when the “merchant” is the Division of Motor Vehicles. In most towns, it’s the only place where we can buy our plates or get our licenses renewed.

Yet the DMV has a widespread problem with accessibility, according to a study it conducted of itself. DMV offices and independent contractors often fail to provide handicapped parking spots, ramps and curb cuts, bathrooms and water fountains adapted for wheelchairs and service counters at the appropriate height.

This is an inexcusable case of a government agency in violation of the law, specifically The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

We’re sure that the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the act, would find it inexcusable, too. So would private businesses that are required to comply with the law.

The DMV study came as no surprise to people with disabilities. Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy group, told McClatchy Newspapers recently that she’s been hearing about DMV accessibility issues for a while.

The DMV study was part of a wider survey conducted by the N.C. Department of Transportation, DMV’s parent agency. The DOT found 60 of its own license agencies and 39 private license tag agencies in violation of the law. Of course, some of the violations were minor and required fairly simple adjustments. But there were also some very serious violations. Repairs on the most serious issues have not yet been made.

To the DOT’s credit, it has initiated contact with advocates for the disabled in hopes of determining how it can comply with their needs. Officials are also calculating how much those improvements will cost.

There will be a temptation, of course, to delay the necessary repairs — especially given the state’s financial situation. That will not be an acceptable response, whether it comes from within the department or from legislators trying to balance a budget. This work must get done.

That all Americans have the right to appropriate access to government and commercial buildings is not a matter for debate. The federal law is now 20 years old. It makes no difference whether a person has two healthy legs or must use a wheelchair. That American should be able to easily move into and out of government offices.

Gov. Bev Perdue and her subordinates should fix this problem quickly.