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When most folks decide to go to lunch, the biggest decision is whether to grab something to go or have a sit-down somewhere. Lunch for Linda Mahler takes a little more thought, the kind of logistical planning that usually goes into the final leg of an assault on Everest.

Mahler is executive director, and a resident, of Independent Living for the Handicapped, a housing unit and support center for the disabled. She frequently eats at the Nehemiah Shopping Center, a block and some hefty challenges away.

“Getting to the ramp [on the south side] is dangerous,” says Mahler, who uses a wheelchair. “You have to cross the driveway where the sidewalk slants down, you can slide into traffic.” The ramp from the parking lot is equally risky, with an unmarked edge that a chair could easily swerve off. As a last resort, Mahler pushes her chair one more block uphill to the third, safer ramp.

More than a year ago, Mahler described these hazards to Bob Moore, executive director of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights and overseer of the center, but got no response. In frustration, she enlisted the help of the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington (DRC), a nonprofit group of advocates for the disabled. After an inspection confirmed the complaints, DRC Executive Director Julia Bell made several calls and wrote a letter to Moore, to no avail. “If they were serious about being accessible, they would have at least returned our calls,” says Mahler. “But we haven’t heard a peep.”

It’s a common scenario. Eight years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law, activists say unreturned phone calls and unanswered complaint letters are the only responses they can count on from business owners. Sick of the stalling and stonewalling by ADA dodgers, Sandy Bernstein, staff lawyer at University Legal Services (ULS), the agency federally charged with enforcing the ADA in the District, plans to file a lawsuit against several businesses in D.C. by the end of the month. The businesses, located all over the city, will get no heads-up before the suits are filed. Bernstein hopes the suits will send a message beyond the specific targets of the legal action.

“The warning’s out there,” Bernstein says. “Now maybe other businesses won’t wait around until they get a letter.”

Signed into law in July 1990, the ADA is the first federal legislation designed to improve the physical access of the disabled to public spaces. Under Title III of the ADA, all public accommodations, hotels, restaurants, grocery and retail stores, must be made to welcome disabled patrons. New buildings have to be constructed with the disabled in mind, and existing ones have to be modified, at the owner’s expense. Other than a tax credit, the government offers no financial support for these measures. Given the lax enforcement to date and the absence of incentives, it’s no wonder many District businesses try to skate their way around the ADA.

Business owners decry the expense of opening their doors to all, but advocates suggest that most changes, adding ramps, lowering towel dispensers in bathrooms, lowering counter tops, cost less than $500. In addition to the increasingly aggressive efforts from the ULS, citizen groups like the DRC are ramping up legal strategies. Legalese seems to be the only language local businesses respond to.

“Once they learn they may have to show all of their financial records if it gets to court, they are more willing to settle,” says Jody Wildy, who works for the DRC. In cases where compliance would be too costly, requiring expensive retrofitting, the law makes an exception and says owners must find another way to comply, such as putting in a doorbell or serving disabled customers outside. The same requirement applies to historical buildings that cannot be altered, a common excuse used to justify noncompliance.

The ULS may be determined to create some consequences for noncompliance, but its plate is so full with monitoring other civil rights, from special education to housing discrimination to mental institution abuse, that local disability activists feel compelled to pick up the slack. Using their friends and neighbors, they have created their own SWAT team, designed to ferret out ADA violations all over the city.

ADA lawsuits take an enormous amount of time and energy for both plaintiffs and defendants, but advocates say filing them is often the only way to get violators’ attention. “It is almost always a battle,” admits Mahler. “But people are more serious about making changes when the threat of litigation is there.”

It will be tough for disabled people to sue their way to access in the District: According to advocates, about every third business still won’t let wheelchairs through the front door.

Laurie Shepard Coburn, a disabled person who uses a motorized buggy, recalls the time she tried to buy a book at Crown Books in Dupont Circle. After struggling in the dark to get in the heavy glass double doors at the deserted back of the building, she took the sometimes-functioning handicapped elevator down, pushed the call button and waited forever for someone to let her in. When the man finally opened the door, he told her to “go away, it’s too crowded in here right now.”

Crown’s vice president of operations, Steve Pate, says all the chain’s stores are accessible, but they would like to make some easier to get into. “But that costs money, and we just declared bankruptcy,” he says.

Living in a 20-unit housing complex for the disabled, Mahler hears access horror stories daily from fellow residents and friends in the community. Her neighbors talk about the times they couldn’t get through the door to eat at recommended restaurants, about wiping out on poorly designed ramps, about the ever-present humiliation of being carried to the bathroom. Often it’s a game of inches, doors that are on the narrow side can mean the difference between eating inside the restaurant or outside on the sidewalk. When Mahler or the other people who live at Independent Living for the Handicapped find a violation, they make a referral to Bell at the Disability Rights Council.

To make sure a complaint is valid, Bell, armed with her cane taped off at 32 and 36 inches, performs an anonymous inspection. If succeeding letters and phone calls to the responsible party are not answered, she can file a complaint with the Department of Justice, but it takes months for such cases to be heard, according to Liz Savage, spokesperson for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Bell can also file a private lawsuit against the entity, but usually only does when the violator is a large and wealthy chain. In December, the DRC filed suit against Cineplex Odeon, the theater chain that once controled all but one of the District’s movie houses, for not making their complexes accessible to people in wheelchairs. This is the DRC’s second suit against the chain; a 1994 suit resulted in Cineplex’s installing listening devices for the hearing-impaired.

DRC does not often pursue cases against smaller businesses, to avoid costly court battles that don’t net big gains in access for the disabled community. “Our goal is really education,” says Bell. “We hope that once they know how important it is, they will want to make changes.”

Nice thought, that, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Months ago, Bell wrote a letter to the Ames department store at 514 Rhode Island Avenue NE, complaining that the metal posts at the entrance designed to keep shopping carts in really served to keep wheelchair customers out. Manager Jeff McNealy promised to widen the gates, but a recent follow-up by Bell proved nothing had been done.

When confronted, owners tend to lay the blame on others, especially the city. Damon Penn, a Nehemiah representative, says the center is completely accessible, and he doesn’t understand the problem getting to the ramp. “They may have trouble getting to the sidewalk,” he says, “but we didn’t develop that.”CP