What good is a right without a court? What if, more than 30 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, an AfricanAmerican tried to force a restaurant to allow him to sit at the whites only lunch counter, but found that his local court had a similar whites only policy?
Would that be acceptable? What good is a right that you can’t enforce in court?
That is exactly the situation people with disabilities face every time they try to enforce their civil rights. For example, we all remember George Lane, who had to crawl up a flight of stairs in a Tennessee court to get to his trial and, when he wouldn’t crawl a second time, was held in contempt. And just this month, a Disability Rights Legal Center attorney who uses a wheelchair had to make his arguments from the back of the courtroom because the litigation area was inaccessible.
The Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) has lately been addressing issues of access to courthouses. We think this is an important issue because a legal right is no good if you can only stand on the street and wave the law around without being able to get into the courthouse to enforce it.
State and federal courthouses are required to provide access under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.
These laws dictate that pre-existing courthouses must provide program access, meaning they must find means to include people with disabilities in their programs, either by making the courthouse accessible or by other means. New courthouses and any alterations to existing courthouses must be built with full accessibility. These requirements are not new—federal courthouses have been subject to accessibility requirements since 1968, federally funded local courthouses since 1973, and all courthouses since 1990.
Yet, according to the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, 80 percent of California courts are inaccessible. Furthermore, rather than being addressed, this inaccessibility is being perpetuated with new construction. The DRLC participated in the U.S. Access Board’s Courthouse Access Advisory Committee, visiting about a dozen new and altered courthouses over the past two years, and discovered that even as we speak, state and federal courthouses are still being built inaccessibly.
We found problems in every area—witness stands with no access, jury boxes with no access, inaccessible gates into the litigation areas, inaccessible entrances, inaccessible restrooms, high counters, a lack of accessible parking, and on and on.
It’s high time we did something about this.
Recently, the DRLC has expended great effort to make courthouses more accessible to people with disabilities. For example, this year we settled litigation against the entire Los Angeles County court system. The court system will make substantial alterations to all its courthouses (both new and existing) to make the courtrooms, witness stands, jury boxes, counters, entrances, restrooms and other areas accessible.
Following that success, we filed a lawsuit against the court system in San Bernardino, California. We plan to make those courthouses accessible as well. And then, if other California counties haven’t learned from these suits, we’ll take on the rest.
Other advocacy groups, such as the Montana Advocacy Project, are pursuing similar efforts.
Beyond the legal requirements for these changes, the need for greater accessibility has already been confirmed in the court of public opinion. According to a Harris poll, 93 percent of adults with and without disabilities agree that courthouses should be accessible. So what’s the hold-up?
Some courts and designers argue that the law is just too confusing and they can’t figure out how to comply. Really? The regulations have pictures. We figured it out. Every person with a disability who tries to go to a courthouse can figure out at least what makes it inaccessible for them. There are countless consultants, architects, disability groups and others who have figured it out and are willing to share their information. Did anyone ask?
Some court systems argue that it’s too expensive to comply. Really? These very courts that remain inaccessible do not find substantial economic burden when they require both large and small businesses to comply with the law. Including accessible elements in a new courthouse is not expensive, if you just remember to include them in the first place. Even changes in existing courthouses can be made inexpensively enough to ensure access to the programs provided.
The courts have millions of dollars in their budgets, and the public has a right to expect that at least some of those funds will be prioritized for upholding the law. Perhaps money could be taken from landscaping or decorations and put into the one-time cost of providing access.
by Eve Hill
Executive Director, Disability Rights Legal Center