Some find annex disabling

Loudon residents want courthouse building to be accessible to all

Friday, August 3, 2007

Mary Lynn Fletcher makes her way to the accessible entrance of the Loudon County courthouse annex after parking down the street because the handicap spot in front was taken when she arrived. Fletcher says the courthouse annex does not comply with guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mary Lynn Fletcher has been fighting for the rights of people with disabilities for 35 years.

Now she’s among residents who want Loudon County to make its 15-year-old courthouse annex accessible to people with mobility problems — a fix they say has been unnecessarily delayed for years.

Fletcher is a public health scientist and former director of the Department of Health and Welfare’s Rural Health Research program. She also served as executive assistant to the surgeon general.

Now in her early 60s, the Lenoir City resident has had mobility problems since being diagnosed with polio at age 5.

As a student at the University of Tennessee in 1972, she successfully brought a lawsuit that allowed her to park her vehicle on campus after a fall that put her on crutches.

In 1976, as a volunteer for Sen. Harrison Williams, D-N.J., she helped author Title V, Section 504, of the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring groups that get federal funding to comply with ADA rules regarding access to public buildings and services.

A series of car accidents in the early 1980s severely limited her mobility, and she began using a wheelchair.

“Tennessee is one of the worst states in the Southeast when it comes to ADA compliance,” Fletcher said. “I still can’t get into the annex building.”

Issues with Loudon County’s courthouse annex include the parking lot’s steep slope and the lack of an elevator, which she said should have been included in the original design in 1992.

“If you want to move from floor to floor, you can’t except by using the stairs or going outside around the other side of the building,” said Tellico Village resident Shirley Wenzel, who uses a walker.

A Department of Justice audit deemed an elevator necessary in 2003, and the County Commission recently voted to authorize $2,500 for an architectural study by Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon.

An elevator could be installed in as little as four months after the study.

Fletcher and others say, however, that the commission also is looking for legal recourse to avoid installing the elevator.

Leo Bradshaw, county purchasing director, said Loudon has been working to comply with ADA at a number of buildings, including the annex.

“When the annex was built in ’92, we didn’t think an elevator was required for the basement because it was supposed to be used for storage,” Bradshaw said.

About five years later, however, the building commissioner’s office was moved downstairs, Bradshaw said. Other offices such as Veterans Affairs have moved there, too.

Bradshaw said there have been more pressing ADA issues, including access at the Senior Center and other county buildings. “The DOJ audit gave us five years to bring the buildings into compliance,” he said.

Finding space for the elevator presents a challenge, and county officials have discussed whether alternatives such as a lifting device on a stairway would comply.

“We have asked DOJ for clarification but have not heard back yet,” Bradshaw said.

Fletcher said the DOJ already has required an elevator and that a lifting device has been deemed unsafe.

“It’s just procrastination,” Wenzel said. “They spend money on plenty of other things.”