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INSIGHTS

An ironic stumbling block for the handicapped
By Z. Joe Thornton |

WITHIN HOURS after Ronald Reagan swore to uphold the laws of the nation and make its officialdom more accessible, some of his top aides quietly began trying to dismantle the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB), a 7-year-old agency that had just published a list of accessibility standards to government offices and buildings for the nearly 35 million handicapped Americans.

Even now, 15 months later, that little-publicized intragovernmental coup has not been fully resolved. Further proposed revisions to the then-suggested “Minimum Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design” (MGRAD) were to have been issued for consideration this spring.

The shabby attempt by Vice President George Bush’s Regulatory Review Task Force and later efforts made by a majority of the ATBCB to toss the rules out with the incoming administration are good, if obscene, examples of fiat by midlevel bureaucrats -instead of legislation by elected representatives.

More than 200,000 handicapped people in Dallas and Tarrant counties will be directly affected by the outcome; far more will be indirectly affected. For the blind, the deaf and those with mobility problems, being able to park, get into and use the publicly financed -or leased -buildings is what is at stake.

The issues are at once both simple and complicated:

– simple in that the president had beenelected on a campaign of less governmental spending and bureaucracy; the smallagency (with its $2.3 million annual budget) seemed, to some, a good place to start.

– complicated in that by trying to rescind its guidelines, and in effect emasculate the agency, the majority of theATBCB’s governing board was defying acongressional amendment to a public law.

History is often best understood by looking to the past. Congress passed – and signed into law -the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968. The law stated simply that any building constructed or leased in whole or in part with federal funds must be made accessible to, and usable by, the handicapped.

Three federal agencies were involved: the General Services Administration, landlord for the federal government; the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the Department of Defense. Later, when an amendment to the 1968 act required cuts in curbs for wheelchairs, the Department of Transportation became involved.

In laissez-faire governmental fashion, each of the agencies was more or less left to its own, sometimes contradictory, way. Enter the ATBCB (created by federal law in 1973 and funded in 1975), which began writing the MGRAD in late 1976. Its purpose was to set the minimum guidelines and standard requirements called for in the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, a law that board members swore to enforce.

ATBCB was set up to contain 22 members: 11 appointed by the president, each representing one of the major executive agencies; and 11 civilians. When the MGRAD was proposed, nine of the 11 civilians were handicapped. Since then, the terms of four of the handicapped have expired.

Board meetings were, at times, acrimonious; but in the end, after two years of meetings, the MGRAD was passed and sent to the Federal Register for publication. Most of the civilian members and representatives from the departments of Justice, Labor, Defense, Education and Interior voted for its implementation.

Publication of the MGRAD on January 16, 1981, was coincidental to the presidential inauguration. However, it was on the following day that David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and others whose economic theories have since been shown faulty, took on the ATBCB and its new guidelines as being everything the president was against.

Not surprisingly (given Stockman’s pull on the government’s purse strings and with the backing of the Bush task force), the 11-member executive agency of the board, none of whom is handicapped, soon agreed to undo what it had done by rescinding the guidelines. The lesson in political power took only six months.

Leading the fight for nonaccessibility was Roger Craig, an assistant postmaster general whose U.S. Postal System has continued to lease 15,000 inaccessible facilities despite a prohibiting law. Postal officials had told the board that compliance with the proposed standards would cost between $60 and $70 million annually. What further angered the USPS was that one of the board’s first acts was to seek -and get -a federal injunction that closed the downtown branch post office in Atlanta. The USPS had spent months fighting accessibility, saying it couldn’t be done; however, the post office was able to comply enough to reopen in only 12 hours.

During that July vote, Craig got the votes of his 10 governmental colleagues and one of the nonhandicapped civilians to rescind the MGRAD. On August 4, the proposed recision was published in the Federal Register, but parliamentary stalling, an outpouring of mail from persons opposed, and the threatened presidential veto of the Senate led to a compromise.

Craig, who had been denounced in earlier congressional hearings as representing an agency that had acted with “in-sensitivity and in bad faith,” reluctantly agreed in a December meeting that the MGRAD be revised, not rescinded.

ATBCB member Mason Rose (a former Marine pilot who was forced to trade his fighter plane for a wheelchair) called the reversal “a victory in that its alternative would have been an abolition of many years of work” -never mind that his term had expired and he was going to be off the board.

In the fight to set the accessibility guidelines, an estimated 4,800 letters were sent from Dallas, Tarrant and Parker counties. Shortly before House and Senate members went home for Christmas recess, they authorized an additional $2 million for fiscal year 1982.

Jim Grey, the Fort Worth quadraplegic who is director of the National Paraplegia Foundation and who played a major role in marshaling support for the board’s turnaround, is hoping for the best as the rules are redrawn.

He is painfully aware, though, that themove to remove accessibility was initiatedin the opening days of the InternationalYear of the Handicapped.

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