Looking Out For Rights Of The Disabled

It's law: People with disabilities must be treated like other Americans in public accommodations, transportation, employment and telecommunications.

The bill of rights for 43 million disabled Americans, passed by Congress earlier this year, becomes law in two years. But now is the time to plan for greater accessibility.

Marge Farnam, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, says she periodically gets on her ``soap box'' on the subject of access.

Though Washington is considered one of the nation's nine or 10 leading states in protecting the rights of the disabled, there is room for improvement.

Farnam, a South Seattle resident, is advocating some changes at state rest stops, hotels and parking garages.

Farnam wants the state Department of Transportation to consider constructing unisex rest rooms at stops along Interstate 5 especially for people with disabilities.

That would make more sense than the present system, in her opinion. Now facilities for the handicapped are inside the men's and women's rest rooms, and if those areas are closed, the disabled have fewer options. Some disabled people are unable to use regular facilities.

Last summer Farnam found herself in an embarrassing situation.

En route home from Canada, her family stopped at the Silver Lake rest area so she could use the facilities for the disabled in the women's rest room.

But because the women's room was locked, Farnam's family asked men not to use the men's room while she used those facilities. However, the facilities for the disabled weren't open in the men's room either.

``What a position to put everyone in!'' Farnam said.

She has visited public facilities that have unisex rest rooms for the disabled and believes the concept works well.

The state closes rest rooms to make repairs or to clean, says Duane Berentson, secretary of the Department of Transportation.

When that occurs the rest-area attendant often is available to open the special facilities for the handicapped.

``However, if there has been vandalism or other malicious damage to the rest room, we are forced to close it until repairs have been made,'' Berentson said.

Berentson said the state knows the present facilities are not convenient for the disabled. As a result, the state is looking at new designs.

If you agree with Farnam, write Berentson at the Transportation Building KF-01, Olympia 98504-5201.

Farnam has another concern. Why do hotels assume disabled travelers will want a double bed in their rooms?

When people with disabilities make hotel reservations, Farnam says the individual and a companion often are assigned special rooms with a double bed and accessible bathroom.

Just because two people travel together doesn't mean they plan to share the same bed, Farnam says.

We believe it's important for hotels and motels to ask the consumer what kind of accommodations she/he wants and needs.

Farnam also has a beef about parking facilities for the disabled at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

The convention center's parking garage has room only for mini vans, Farnam says, but many people with disabilities use regular or oversized vans to stow their gear.

Last summer, convention center officials directed those with regular and oversize vans to parking areas near the center.

Now we're told disabled people who use regular and oversize vans may park near the facility's loading dock area.

However, V.A. Hawley, assistant general manager for the convention center, cautions that only a few parking spots are available.

Call 447-5127, the security control office, or 447-5185, the parking coordinator, to check on availability of these spots.

To obtain a map of the center, call 447-5000, or write 800 Convention Pl., Seattle 98101.

T.M. Allen of North Seattle has raised some questions about the new Metro Transit Tunnel and access for those with disabilities.

As a senior citizen, Allen expressed concern about using the steps or escalators to the buses in Metro Transit's new tunnel.

A brochure about tunnel accessibility should be ready in about a week, according to a Metro spokesman.

Most entrances to the tunnel have elevators for people unable to use stairs or escalators.

Two locations that do not have elevators are the entrance to the University Street station from the Cobb Building at Third Avenue and University Street, and the entrance to the Pioneer Square station on James Street between Second and Third Avenues.

All buses that use the tunnel are equipped with wheelchair lifts, which can be used by people with physical disabilities. If your physical disability is not apparent, tell the driver you need a lift.

Occasionally the lifts don't operate. In such instances the driver will ask passengers to wait for the next bus with an operating lift.

The ``Rider's Guide to the Metro Transit Tunnel'' is available and can be found with bus schedules, including at the Westlake Station on the mezzanine level and the Exchange Building, Second Avenue and Marion Street.

If you have other questions about Metro Transit, call 447-4800.

Know your resources

Need to bone up on resources for consumers? Write the Federal Trade Commission, 2806 Federal Building, 915 Second Ave., Seattle, WA 98174, for a free copy of the ``Consumer's Resource Handbook.''

The 93-page book gives general advice on how to be a smart consumer, as well as lists of names and addresses for corporations, car manufacturers, trade associations and other dispute-resolution programs, Better Business Bureaus around the nation; state, county and city consumer protection offices and a variety of federal agencies.

Included in the book is a listing of federal agencies that have TDD phone numbers, or telecommunication devices for the deaf.

Shelby Gilje's Troubleshooter column appears Sunday through Thursday in the Scene section of The Times. Do you have a problem? Write to Times Troubleshooter, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include copies, not originals, of documents indicating payment, guarantees, contracts and other relevant materials.