By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Signs with braille, lower counters, lever-action door handles, and better fire escapes are all part of a long-term plan to bring Hill County facilities into compliance with federal disability laws.
County officials met Monday to discuss the county's progress in implementing the plan, required largely by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It's an ongoing endeavor," Commission Chair Pat Conway said. "We review it yearly to see what we've completed, what needs to be done, and set an implementation schedule."
Projects include things like renovating restrooms, building paved access ramps, and placing signs that direct people to handicapped exits. One of the biggest projects the county has completed was the construction of a handicap-accessible ramp on the east side of the Courthouse. The ramp allows people in wheelchairs to access the building without having to use an electric lift.
The new ramp has been invaluable to the County Health Department, county planner Clay Vincent said.
"With our flu shots, we see a lot of senior citizens and sick people," he said. "Plus with all of the parents we have coming in here with strollers, it really benefits people getting into the building. The new entrance has been great."
The courthouse will see other renovations in the future, including making the building's fire escapes consistent with ADA standards.
"I don't know what we can do with it," said building manager Richard Ricci. "We have two fire escapes, but they're not ADA. A disabled person would have to be carried down the stairs."
Ricci suggested that the county look at a system that uses a motorized carriage attached to the fire escape. The installation of such a device would be extremely expensive, as one carriage would have to be installed on each of the building's three floors, Ricci said.
Having such a system is essential, Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said.
"That courthouse is a tall building," he said. "What happens if the person in the wheelchair is the only one there? That type of equipment needs to be installed, but it's very costly."
Local governments' ability to make ADA improvements are undermined by two factors, Conway said.
"Like everything else, it comes down to two things - time and money," Conway said. "You have to budget for both. The idea is to get a little done each year."
"I know a lot of the counties are in the same boat," he said. "If you only have a couple thousand people in the county, you can't throw a whole lot of money at it. The old saying that you have to walk before you run really applies here."
Less expensive compliance issues include changing door handles, posting signs, and lowering counters. Posting signs that use the international symbol for handicapped access is a top priority, Conway said.
"It doesn't do a lot of good to have handicapped bathrooms if people don't know where they are," he said.
Other projects for the Courthouse include upgrading the emergency evacuation system - the signs and alarms that direct people to exits during emergencies - and installing braille signs in the elevator.
One major hurdle was cleared with the opening of the Timmons Room in the basement of the Courthouse. The room, formerly occupied by the Sheriff's Office, provides a meeting place that is easily accessible for disabled people. County officials regularly hold meetings there, and it could be used as an alternate jury room if a juror is disabled.
Other projects the county has funded include constructing a paved walkway at Wahkpa Chu'gn bison kill site, installing handicapped seating at the Hill County Fairgrounds, and building handicap-accessible restrooms at campsites in Beaver Creek Park.
County facilities are not inspected on a regular basis for compliance with ADA, but would be inspected if a person were to file a complaint, Conway said.
There is no deadline for the county to meet ADA compliance. The federal government has given local governments some leeway because of the high cost of upgrading buildings, Conway said.
"As long as you're making progress each year, that's what they look for," he said. "If someone came 25 years from now, and we had nothing accomplished - then we might have a problem."
The high cost of upgrades requires the work be done in pieces, Vincent said.
"These things are tremendously expensive," he said. "It's not something you can get done all at once. The important thing is to work toward remedying access problems, and continue to push toward that goal."
Other projects discussed on Monday were building a new sidewalk around the North Central Senior Citizens Center, installing a door buzzer at the County Road Department building, and changing round door handles to lever-type handles in restrooms on county property.
"There's always a concern for liability," Conway said, "not only for ADA issues, but for safety in general for people using county facilities."
Businesses and local governments have become much more aware of the needs of disabled people, but more work is needed, said Gerry Cook, who uses a wheelchair.
"There are buildings that are easy to get into, and some that you can't get into at all," Cook said.
Cook uses a wheelchair because of complications from diabetes, but expects that she will recover in the near future.
"There are different degrees of disabilities," she said. "It's important not to lump everyone together. Accessibility problems are different for people with different disabilities."
Simple things easily overlooked by businesses create obstacles for people with disabilities, Cook said. Aisles too close together, displays on the ground rather than on shelves, and uneven parking lots all prevent disabled people from shopping at some stores, she said.
One of the best improvements in handicapped accessibility has been ramps on sidewalks in downtown Havre, Cook said.
"Before they did that, you couldn't get up the curb," she said. "By putting in accessible curbs, now you can use the sidewalks."
And for places that don't have ramped sidewalks?
"Your options are to not go, or to find someone else to do whatever it is that you need to do in that building," Cook said.