OPA: ADA and Municipal Government

"The Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.)

in Municipal Government:
Title II Planning and Implementation

 in Connecticut’s Cities and Towns"
 

May 2002
a report prepared for the State Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities
by the Americans with Disabilities Act Coalition of Connecticut, Inc. (A.D.A.C.C.)
and Independent Living Resources of Northampton, Massachusetts

Introduction: Purpose and Scope of the Study
Section I: Overview of Title II Requirements
Section II: Office of Protection and Advocacy Survey
Section III: Site Visits
Section IV: General Findings & Observations
Section V: Recommendations and Conclusion


Introduction
Purpose and Scope of the Study

Twelve years ago, the congress of the United States, acting in exceptional bipartisan unity, enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In so doing it committed the nation to a broad and sustained effort to transform and elevate the social and economic status of the nation’s largest and poorest minority group—persons with disabilities. The protections of the ADA cover an estimated 53 million Americans, or nearly 20% of the nation’s population.

The ADA is codified in five titles, the second of which (Title II) provides the statutory reference point for this study of ADA compliance planning and implementation in Connecticut’s city and town governments. While Title II applies to all state and local governmental entities, it is through the programs and services of municipal government that it most directly effects the lives of more than half a million residents of the State of Connecticut who have disabilities. Recognizing the central importance of municipal programs to the success or failure of the ADA, the State Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities (P&A) in the Fall of 2001 contracted with the ADA Coalition of Connecticut. Inc. (ADACC) to examine the current state of municipal compliance with the requirements of Title II.

ADACC called on Independent Living Resources, a disability organization with extensive ADA planning and implementation experience, to conduct a two-part study. In the first part of the study (Part A), responses by more than 150 communities to a 1999 survey on municipal ADA compliance by the Office of Protection and Advocacy were reviewed and analyzed. In the second part (Part B), on-site facility accessibility assessments were conducted of the primary municipal building in 25 randomly selected communities.

This report presents an assessment of the current state of ADA compliance in Connecticut’s municipal governments based on the combined survey and site visit findings and presents a set of recommendations aimed at moving the process of Title II compliance forward. The report is organized in five sections. Section] gives a brief overview of municipal obligations under Title II; Section 2 summarizes and evaluates the information submitted in response to the 1999 P&A survey; Section 3 describes site visit.

Findings and information gathered from interviews and conversations with ADA coordinators and other municipal officials; Section 4 presents general findings and observations drawing on both survey and site visit information; and Section 5 presents conclusions and recommendations aimed at strengthening ADA implementation in Connecticut’s cities and towns.

Section I
Overview of Title II Requirements

Title II of the ADA requires all public entities, from the smallest rural water district to state governments as a whole, to undertake a number of administrative actions to bring all programs, services and activities into compliance. Entities with 50 or more full and part time employees are required to undertake five action steps [Title II, Section 35.102]

  1. Designate an official responsible for coordinating all compliance activities.
  2. Provide notice to the public and employees of their rights and protections under the ADA and how the entity complies. [Sec. 35.107(a)]
  3. Adopt and administer a grievance procedure for resolving ADA related grievances and complaints by the public and employees. [Sec. 35.106]
  4. Conduct a comprehensive review of policies and procedures (or Self-Evaluation) in four areas: equal employment opportunity, nondiscriminatory operation of programs and services, effective communication, and program and facility accessibility. [Sec. 35.107 (b)]
  5. Prepare and carry out a Transition Plan of structural modifications needed to remove barriers limiting access to programs, including installation of curb-ramps on walks and pedestrian ways. [Sec. 35.105]

Entities with fewer than 50 full and part time employees are exempt from some but not all of these administrative requirements [Sec. 35.150(d)].

They are not required to name a coordinator, to adopt a grievance procedure, or to carry out a Transition Plan. They are, however, required to provide notice of ADA compliance to employees and the public and to conduct a Self-Evaluation that includes a program and facility accessibility assessment and a process for barrier removal.

The following scenarios illustrate the scope of the Self-Evaluation requirement:

Mr. Jones has worked in town government for seven years. Four months ago he was seriously injured in an automobile accident while on vacation. At first it was feared that he might not survive, but with excellent trauma care and a lot of hard work, he and his doctors believe that he is now ready to go back to work. He will need flexibility in his work schedule for some time to enable him to participate in physical and speech therapy twice a week. His doctors have told him that his manual dexterity may be permanently impaired, his speech may be somewhat slurred, and he may experience short-term memory deficits. How extensive the effects of his injuries will be in the long run, only time will tell. Mr. Jones has scheduled a meeting with the Director of Human Resources to discuss his return to work and the accommodations he will need.

Mr. Frederick is one of the town library’s most enthusiastic patrons. He often stops by the reading room or the audio-visual room on his way from work to his nearby home in a group residence for persons with developmental disabilities. He is one of the first to sign up when the library announces it is recruiting volunteers to assist the staff with children ‘s Saturday afternoon programs. The volunteer coordinator’s first reaction is surprise—and a little anxiety. She wonders what she needs to do to involve Mr. Frederick in the program in a way that will benefit the kids and suits his abilities and interests. She and Mr. Frederick have talked briefly a few times to get acquainted and they have decided that it would be useful to have a meeting with an advocate and trusted friend of Mr. Frederick’s who might have some ideas and suggestions.

At 81, Mrs. Smith is a spokesperson and advocate for the elders of her community. She attends city council meetings regularly, offers testimony, and frequently meets with council members individually to discuss her concerns. Mrs. Smith has been experiencing gradual hearing loss for a number of years, but now she realizes that she has begun to miss much of what is being said, even with a new public address system in use. Learning of her frustration, the Chairperson of the Council arranges a meeting between Mrs. Smith and a senior staff member to see if there is some way to solve the problem.

The Campbells recently moved into town and enrolled their two sons in a middle school a few blocks from their home. Their older boy is 13; he has spina bifida—a congenital injury to his spinal column—and uses a wheelchair. He is frustrated and angry at being unable to roll to school with his brother and new friends. They can use the sidewalk, but there are no curb cuts at the corners and speeding traffic makes it dangerous to use the street. He must either ride in the family car or use the lift-equipped van provided by the school. The Campbells have requested that the town install curb cuts along the sidewalks between their home and the school.

These are the kinds of interactions between persons with disabilities and municipal governments that are becoming increasingly common since the enactment of the ADA in 1990 and the publication of the Title II regulations by the Department of Justice in 1992. These scenarios are presented not only to illustrate the four major areas in which Title II requires that the review of policies and procedures be carried out to fulfill the self-evaluation requirement, but also to suggest—albeit in simplified terms— how the ADA is supposed to work. Consider then how each of these situations might result in a positive conclusion consistent with Title II.

Mr. Jones’ meeting with the Human Resources Director clarifies the accommodations that he needs to return to work and the town agrees to provide reasonable job accommodations—those that do not entail an undue financial or administrative hardship—needed to enable Mr. Jones to perform the essential functions of his job and participate in other activities and benefits of employment. Mr. Jones, in turn, will be expected to perform the essential functions of his job at a comparable level of productivity to that of other employees, including coming in early or staying late if necessary to make up the time he takes off for therapy appointments.

A similar process of problem solving is followed in the Volunteer Coordinator’s meeting with Mr. Frederick and his friend. Obstacles to Mr. Frederick’s participation as a volunteer in the youth program are identified, along with modifications to policies and operating procedures to overcome them -- again within reasonable parameters of cost and administrative effort.

Not long after the meeting that the Council Chairperson arranged for Mrs. Smith, an augmentative communication system is purchased and installed, enabling Mrs. Smith to adjust the volume on a receiver and headphones to any level she needs during meetings.

And as for the Campbells, work on the curb cuts is scheduled to start in a few months. In the meantime, the Public Works Department—concerned about the traffic hazard on the busy street and realizing how difficult it is to ask a teenager to be patient—is installing temporary "built up" blacktop ramps at the curbs along the route.

As these examples indicate, Title II sets a high standard for the operation of public programs and services in relation to persons with disabilities. But it is important to keep in mind that Title II does not raise the bar of legal obligations for municipalities and other public entities, but fixes if at the point to which it had already been raised in the 1 970s by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In comparison with Section 504 there is, in fact, very little that is new in Title II, with the single exception of the requirement that a schedule for installation of curb cuts be included in the transition planning process. Moreover, in formulating Title Il, Congress carefully reviewed the impact of Section 504 on recipients of federal funds—a category that includes all municipal governments-and found no evidence that Section 504 had been unduly burdensome.

Title II entails something almost unprecedented in the history of federal social and civil rights policy-a reaffirmation, recapitulation and detailed reiteration of a previously articulated mandate. Furthermore, Congress was explicit in requiring that public entities that had been covered by Section 504 for nearly a quarter of a century were obligated to again review how well or poorly they have been doing in meeting their obligations 1) to provide equal employment opportunity to otherwise qualified candidates and employees with disabilities; 2) to operate their programs, services, and activities in a non-discriminatory manner; 3) to provide effective communication support for persons whose disabilities effect their hearing, vision and speech; and 4) to ensure that programs and facilities are accessible and usable by persons with disabilities.

Section II
Office of Protection and Advocacy Survey

In 1999, Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities distributed a questionnaire to all municipalities in Connecticut soliciting information about their compliance with the requirements of Title II of the ADA and a number of related issues. Municipalities were asked to submit copies of their Self-Evaluations, Transition Plans, Grievance Procedures and Public Notices along with the completed survey form.

Of Connecticut’s 169 municipal entities, 137 communities submitted partial or complete survey forms and approximately two out of three also submitted some form of supporting documentation, much of it incomplete and often minimal. Eleven communities submitted some form ol documentation, but no survey forms.

The project team tabulated responses to those survey questions thai directly related to compliance with Title II. Supporting documentation wa5 also reviewed and evaluated for all responding municipalities.

Survey Responses

The following summarizes affirmative responses to Title II related question5 by the 137 municipalities that returned survey questionnaires. The number of affirmative responses to the questions about the Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan requirements were 91 (or approximately 2 of 3) for the former and 74 (or slightly more than 1 of 2) for the latter. A substantiaIly higher level of compliance was reported relative to holding public meetings in accessible locations (92%) and accessibility of city and town haIls (90%). The disparity here is notable since the Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan are the means by which access barriers are to be identified and eliminated.

Summary of Affirmative Survey Responses (n = 137)

ADA Coordinator appointed 116 (84%)
Public Notice of ADA compliance posted 97 (71%)
ADA grievance procedure adopted 91(66%)
Self-Evaluation completed 90 (66%)
Transition Plan completed 74 (54%)
Public meetings held in accessible locations 126 (92%)
City and Town Halls accessible 124 (90%)

Survey Question #3 listed eight respondents to report which are accessible, which are not accessible, and which are not applicable. The eight categories included were: town halls,  police stations, fire stations, libraries, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and playgrounds. Multiplying eight categories of building types by 137 communities returning surveys yields a total of 1,096 possible responses. Note that the questionnaire did not ask the number of buildings in each category. Of the 1,096 possible responses, 143 were marked not applicable and 184 were not marked in any way. This leaves 728 responses that described buildings or categories of buildings as either accessible or not accessible. Of these, only 61 were marked not accessible. To some extent, this very high rate of affirmative responses is attributable to the fact that the way in which the question was asked made no allowance for reporting partial accessibility. It is understandable that a municipal official weighing a mix of accessible and non-accessible Features would be inclined to choose the affirmative response.

Some attempted to clarify their responses with hand-written notes such as "Only first floor is accessible; Can get in building but not rest rooms, There is more than one library, Schools not administered by the town, Fire Department is not a town department," etc. There were in all 69 of these kinds of notes.

Because of the difficulty in interpreting/computing such varied and conditional responses, the decision was made to use only the Town Halls in the summary as all 137 communities responded in this category. A total of 124, or approximately 90%, reported that the municipality’s city or town hall is accessible.

Review of Supporting Documentation

Documents contained in the files were reviewed by the project team using the guidelines and forms in the ADA Title II Action Guide—a technical assistance manual used to support Title II compliance planning—as a baseline. The following summarizes the quantity and quality of the documents.

Public Notice

97 municipalities reported posting an ADA Public Notice and
74 submitted copies of the notice;
21 of these 74 made no reference to the ADA

Grievance Procedure

91 communities reported adoption of an ADA Grievance Procedure and
71 submitted copies;
21 of 71 were either limited to employment issues or made no reference to the ADA at all.

Self-Evaluation

90 communities reported that a Self-Evaluation had been conducted and
57 submitted some type of documentation related to the self-evaluation process.
42 of 57 self-evaluation documents primarily addressed architectural access assessment and transition planning issues.
5 of the 57 self-evaluation documents reflected that self-evaluation had actually been carried out in all four of the required areas.
3 additional — for a total of 8 of 57-- demonstrated substantial attention to employment issues beyond the basic reasonable accommodation obligation.
15 of 57 documents made no reference to the three non-facility areas of a comprehensive self-evaluation: equal employment opportunity, nondiscriminatory operation of programs and effective communication.

Transition Plan

74 communities reported that a Transition Plan has been completed and
42 submitted some type of facility access planning documentation;
22 of 42 addressed only the first of five elements typically found in a complete Transition Plan: an identification of barriers.
20 of 42 addressed identification of barriers and at least one of the following four additional elements: prioritization of barrier removal projects, budget and cost estimates, timeline for completion of barrier removal projects, follow-up documentation of completed work.

With some exceptions, the documents reviewed were fragmented, sketchy and incomplete. Often, respondents indicated in their survey responses that a Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan had been completed but did not submit copies. While some missing documents may have been the result of filing errors, another factor—pointed out by more than one respondent—was that Title II only requires that Self-Evaluations be kept on file and available for public inspection for a period of three years.

Despite limitations in the way survey questions were framed and the sketchiness of the supporting documentation, review of the data yields the following general picture of the state of ADA compliance in Connecticut’s cities and towns, a picture that presents a useful baseline for comparison with the results of the site visits and interviews in the 2nd part of the study.

What the Survey Showed

With few exceptions, the self-evaluation process was heavily weighted toward facility accessibility rather than covering all four major areas in a systematic and balanced way.

Within the focus on facility accessibility, transition planning 35 150 d was most often carried out piecemeal and few communities actually formulated and carried out systematic plans.

A high level of building accessibility is reported in the survey responses but comments indicate a great deal of confusion 36211 about the meaning of "accessible" and compliance may sometimes be interpreted as little more than a wheelchair user’s ability to get through the door.

The surveys suggest a general lack of clarity about the application of the program accessibility standard and how to 36.305 balance the use of non-structural and structural barrier removal solutions to achieve program accessibility.

The Public Notices and Grievance Procedures adopted in a 35 106 significant number of communities reflect misunderstanding 351 07’b of Title II requirements and their relationship to other federal mandates and statutes.

While there appears to be a broad acknowledgment of the obligation to provide effective communication support for persons with limited vision, hearing and speech, it also 36.303 appears that many communities have not adopted specific procedures for responding to requests for auxiliary aids and services in a timely manner.

Employment seems to be the issue given the second highest Title I level of attention after program and facility accessibility.

However, very few communities indicated that detailed employment policies and procedures have been adopted addressing issues such as:

-  ensuring confidentiality
-  distinguishing between permissible and impermissible inquiries in applications and hiring interviews
-  defining essential versus marginal job functions and
-  defining procedures for requesting and providing reasonable accommodations.

Section III
Site Visits

In Phase Two of the study, site visits were conducted at city and town halls in 25 randomly selected communities distributed across three population groups as follows:

• three communities with 100,000 or more residents,
• fifteen communities between 5,000 and 100,000 residents,
• seven communities with 5,000 or fewer residents.

To avoid conflict of interest issues, any city or town that had previously contracted with a member of the project team for ADA implementation planning, technical assistance or training was eliminated from the selection process.

City and town halls were selected for the site-assessments because they are the primary place in most communities where public discourse, decision making, record keeping, administrative/service functions take place. It was assumed that barrier removal might have received greater attention in these buildings than in most other municipal facilities, with the possible exception of the public schools. Even though this might reflect a higher standard of accessibility than exists in other municipal buildings, it was decided that as a group they present the best target for collecting information on how well or poorly municipalities are meeting their program and facility accessibility obligations.

Because time constraints did not allow a complete access assessment of each building, a simplified checklist was used to survey the following 8 access elements:

1.     Parking
2.     Exterior access routes from walkways and parking to a primary accessible entrance
3.     Interior access routes connecting entrances with program areas
4.     Restrooms
5.     Primary public meeting areas
6.     Signage
7.     Assistive listening systems
8.     Alarm systems

Some site visits also offered opportunities to meet with ADA coordinators and other informants to discuss the study and to ask them a series of questions that had been added to the site visit checklist touching on all four areas of a comprehensive Self-Evaluation:

•     Program and facility accessibility and the transition planning process
•     Non-discriminatory operations
•     Equal employment opportunity
•     Effective Communication

Three weeks before the site visits began, a letter was sent to a contact person in each municipality. The letter introduced the project and stated that the purpose of the visit was to collect information on patterns across the 25 communities as a whole, and not to hold individual communities up to scrutiny or public criticism. The letter contained an assurance, reiterated during the on-site discussions, that communities would not be named in the report or otherwise identified. To fulfill this commitment, all site visit data is reported anonymously, and quotations and descriptive details are presented without ascription to individual informants or municipalities. In addition, all identifying references in notes and data tabulations have been replaced by numerical codes.

Site Visit Outcomes

The information yielded by the site visits is presented under two headings:

I.    Architectural and Program Accessibility at Town Halls
II.  Interview Information Regarding the Self-Evaluation

The first heading presents relatively ‘hard’ information, that is, information based on actual observations and measurements by members of the project team, while the second is necessarily ‘soft’, based as it is or expressions of opinion and assertions of facts that the project team was not able to verify.

I.     Architectural and Program Accessibility at Town Halls

The 1999 P&A survey indicated that of the 25 Town Halls selected by this study for the site assessments:

21 were reported to be accessible
1 was reported to be partially physically accessible with a program access solution employed when necessary - (moving program functions to the accessible building level.)
3 had not been rated because the survey had not been returned.

Two additional municipal buildings used to house typical town hall functions were also assessed, bringing the total number of building surveyed to 27. All 27 were found to be at least partially accessible, but all were also found to have some non-accessible features that compromise their use by persons with disabilities. The following summarize the most serious areas of deficiency:

Exterior Access Routes

15 of 39 pedestrian routes from parking areas and adjacent walkways to nominally accessible entrances are fully accessible (i.e. have firm level, non-slip surfaces with no tripping hazards or protruding objects properly graded or ramped changes in elevation; ramps and entrance ways with required handrails; and level wheelchair landing areas maneuver space, and latch-side clearance).

18 have major deficiencies, such as tripping hazards, deteriorated ramp surfaces, slopes exceeding 1:12, only one or no handrails, insufficient maneuver space and latch-side clearance, wide drain gratings in walkways, etc.

4 were rated partially accessible with relatively minor barriers, such as difficult to use door hardware, unbeveled thresholds, minor deterioration of walkway surfaces, etc.

Parking

All buildings had one or more reserved accessible parking spaces.
Only 7 of 27 had van-accessible spaces with 8’ access aisles.

Rest Rooms

8 of 27 buildings have at least one fully accessible unisex rest room or at least one men’s and one women’s accessible rest room.

7 buildings have major barriers to access in rest rooms, such as narrow entrance doors, inadequate turning and maneuver space, small toilet stalls, low toilets and inadequate grab bars.

12 buildings have rest rooms or pairs of rest rooms that were rated partially accessible, with such non-accessible elements as inadequate sink hardware, inoperable stall latches, and high towel dispensers, mirrors, clothes hooks, etc.

Assistive Listening Systems

Only 3 of 27 facilities have hardwired assistive listening systems in primary public meeting spaces or wiring to support use of portable systems.

T
actile and Braille Signs

4 of 27 buildings have extensively installed tactile and contrasting signs throughout.
19 have very limited or no accessible signs.
4 have accessible signs in some but not all areas of the buildings.

The summary of barriers identified during the site assessment demonstrates that significant access deficiencies are fairly common in the municipal buildings surveyed. In fact, no building was without at least a few barriers that to a greater or lesser extent compromised its use by persons with disabilities. However, there is always a danger in presenting such a summary that the view of the forest can be lost in counting the trees; in other words, that the access picture as a whole may appear unduly negative. On the positive side of the equation, most of the buildings surveyed have a foundation of accessible or nearly accessible features already in place that can be upgraded relatively easily; program accessibility solutions such as scheduling meetings in accessible spaces either with the town hall or in another more accessible building are already employed at several sites; and a few of the communities with highly problematic buildings have long range plans to create permanent structural access solutions as part of major renovations or new construction.

II. Interview Information Regarding the Self-Evaluation

The interviews produced a great deal of useful information about the compliance planning process and outcomes. Their greatest value, however, is the light that they shed on coordinators’ and other informants’ points of view - their subjective experiences and their values and beliefs. How, for example, does a coordinator’s approach to dealing with the ADA reflect his or her personal and professional values or the struggle to apportion time and resources against the multiple competing demands of public service or concerns about the political and economic environment in their communities? This kind of ‘soft’ information, while valuable, is so subjective and essentially anecdotal that it cannot be quantified in a meaningful way. Without it, however, there would be no way of filling in the shadings and texture of the issues to be addressed.

Transition Planning and Barrier Removal

Informants in approximately one-third of the communities reported significantly more thorough transition planning processes and more progress on barrier removal than had been found in the review of the survey documents. They typically reported that extensive transition planning had been conducted in their communities, that substantial funds had been allocated for barrier removal, and that a significant number of structural modifications and/or non-structural program access solutions had been implemented, including curb-cut installation.

A smaller number of informants reported that partial or informal plans had been developed and implemented piecemeal, and a few reported that planning was continuing with surveys of one or more town buildings scheduled. The coordinator in one town described major renovations and additions to the community’s public schools as the funding priority over the past decade and stated that attention was now shifting to other building priorities, including renovation of town hall. Another senior official pointed to an accessible school adjacent to town hall and described its use as the interim program access solution for public meetings and other uses until a new town hall—not yet approved by the voters—is constructed. Several informants expressed frustration at inadequate public support for urgently needed renovations and new construction. Also, officials in several communities, two of whom are building inspectors, expressed concern at a general lack of enforcement of access codes and standards throughout their communities.

In a few communities, officials who were relatively new to their positions acknowledged that they did not know what, if anything, had been done regarding the whole self-evaluation process, in particular, the transition planning.

Non-Discriminatory Operations

Virtually all of the officials interviewed indicated that they are aware of their community’s obligation to make reasonable modifications to policies and procedures and stated that they are prepared to do so. However, only a few reported that policies and procedures are in place for receiving and responding to requests for reasonable modifications. The predominant attitude expressed among coordinators and other informants was confidence in their own ability and that of their colleagues to handle unusual situations and resolve problems when they arise. In contrast, a small number of interviewees, particularly those from the three largest cities, candidly expressed concern that the effectiveness of responses to requests for reasonable modifications would vary greatly depending upon the skills of the particular staff person handling the request and the working conditions, resources and attitudes in various departments. This latter group was generally more receptive to the idea that policies and procedures would be useful, but they also tended as a group to be more pessimistic about the prospects for consistent support from elected officials and about the possibility of coordinating compliance processes across departments.

Equal Employment Opportunity

All but one interviewee reported that their communities are aware of and committed to fulfilling the obligation to make reasonable employment accommodations for employees and applicants with disabilities. About half said that policies are in place regarding the process of providing reasonable accommodations or that they believe such policies are in place. Only three expressed similar confidence that equal employment opportunity policies are in place covering issues such as confidentiality, permissible vs. impermissible inquiries, drug testing etc. About one-third acknowledged that no formal policies and procedures have been adopted.

Effective Communication

The picture is similar in regard to effective communication. All but one interviewee reported that their communities are aware of the obligation to ensure effective communication and committed to providing auxiliary communication aids and services in response to reasonable requests. The single respondent who acknowledged not knowing of the effective communication obligation—the same one who responded in the same way to questions on employment and reasonable modification obligations—is new in the position and expressed interest in moving forward to develop policies in all areas. In the area of effective communication as in employment and operation of programs and services, most municipalities have not adopted specific policies and procedures. Coordinators and other respondents typically report that they respond to requests for effective communication as they arise without the guidance of specific policies and without having at hand resource materials enabling them to locate, purchase or rent, schedule and use auxiliary aids and services in an effective and timely way.

Comments by Coordinators and Informants

The following is a summary of the most pertinent comments voiced by the ADA Coordinators and other officials about the challenges of the compliance process and the kinds of resources and support that they would find useful in meeting them:

A number of coordinators expressed frustration at their lack of authority to carry out the responsibilities assigned to them. Some described the root of the problem as lack of access to senior administrators and elected officials and inconsistent support from them.

For others, lack of authority is more a function of the administrative systems within which they operate and structures that can make communication and coordination across departmental boundaries difficult.

Lack of authority of another sort was also a concern for a several building inspectors who serve as the ADA coordinators in their municipalities. For these individuals, among whom are some of the most vocal ADA advocates interviewed—the disparities between Title II and state building :ode requirements create role confusion and limit their ability to enforce he ADA not only within municipal government but their communities as a whole. Several of these officials also voiced frustration over the lack of consistent enforcement of the state access code.

Coordinators commonly point out the lack of financial resources as a major barrier to meeting ADA obligations expressing a range of sentiments from resignation to frustration. Several say that the problem stems not so much from the current economic down turn as the restraints imposed on public expenditures by the growth of anti-tax sentiments over the whole period since the passage of the ADA. The most serious impact has been he necessity to defer building renovations and new construction not only or ADA compliance purposes but a whole range of urgent community needs.

Two additional challenges described by coordinators were the difficulty of adding a complex set of responsibilities to an already over-full workload and difficulty in defining and carrying out their role without adequate raining and without a reference group of colleagues in similar roles with whom to discuss concerns and share information.

At the conclusion of interviews coordinators and other official were asked what kinds of practical resources would be helpful in strengthening the compliance process. They responded with a number of suggestions incIuding the following:

Training on topics ranging from basis to advanced ADA related skills with the greatest weight on facility accessibility and employment;

Opportunities to discuss common concerns with coordinators from other communities and to exchange ideas and information;

Examples and models of proven, tested procedures and policies that can be easily appropriated and put into practice;

Resources information in areas like effective communication - what to get, where to get it, how much it costs, how much time it takes, etc.;

More effective coordination with state authorities and resources, such as the state giving priority to capital expenditures that move ADA compliance forward and expand services to all citizens (e.g., bonding council).

A fairly strong consensus seemed to emerge form these discussions that a forum of some kind, in which coordinator’s could interact either face to face or on-line, would be especially timely and useful.

Section IV
General Findings & Observations

Comparison of the outcomes of the survey review and the site visits yielded the following general findings.

  1. While interviews indicate that a somewhat higher level of transition planning has taken place in the most active communities than reflected in the document review, plans with few exceptions are partial and non-systematic. A significant number of communities with fifty or more employees have not taken any steps towards meeting their transition planning obligation, while some smaller communities have incorrectly interpreted their exemption from the Transition Plan requirement as an exemption from the obligation to identify and eliminate barriers to ‘program accessibility’.
  2. The number of barriers found during access assessments indicate that the transition planning and barrier removal processes are seriously undercut by lack of understanding of access codes and standards and insufficient skill in applying the principles of barrier-free design.
  3. Site visit interviews confirm that there is a broad general understanding of the intent of the ADA and its general applicability to municipal government but less than adequate understanding of the details of the law and regulations.
  4. Site visits also confirm widespread weaknesses in the way that Self-Evaluations have been conducted and that in most communities the policies and procedures adopted are inadequate, resulting in legal exposures and less effective operation of programs and services.
  5. Interviews indicate that the burden tends to fall on individuals with disabilities to initiate requests for accommodations, reasonable modifications, auxiliary aids and services etc., rather than cities and towns fulfilling the intent of the public notice requirement by actively reaching out and communicating rights and protections under the ADA requirements and how each entity meets its obligations.
  6. A significant number of informants acknowledge not knowing what the compliance process and outcomes have been in their communities. This seems to reflect both general weaknesses in the self-evaluation process and a specific lack of staff training and staff development activities within the municipalities necessary to support effective implementation of compliance provisions.
  7. Finally, very little evidence can be found of participation by individuals with disabilities or their representative organizations in the self-evaluation process. Even though many communities have some type of commission or other body representing the interests of residents with disabilities, very few references were found in the document review or noted during on site interviews that these groups and individuals had been called upon to participate in the compliance planning process.

Observations

"l always felt that ADA was about people, not buildings: the point is to accommodate people."

"In this town we have a philosophy - if anyone has a problem, we try to solve it."

"We have a small staff and we work closely together. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we divide up responsibilities and tasks among ourselves accordingly."

"The way we do business around here is, when a resident of the town has a need, we respond to it. If we don ‘t, we’re not going to be working here."

These and similar comments noted during interviews and follow-up phone conversations point to a fundamental strength of the compliance process that does not show up in responses to technical questions about the law, but nevertheless is likely to be the key to the success of any future effort to strengthen implementation of the ADA in Connecticut’s cities and towns. If one accepts the basic proposition that values and attitudes are fundamental to the success or failure of any mandate for social change, then it is tremendously important -- and a cause for considerable optimism - that twelve years after enactment of the ADA, there is so much evidence that the support for the principle of full participation by people with disabilities runs quite broad and deep within Connecticut’s municipalities.

But while attitudes and values may establish the foundation, the day-today business of compliance planning and implementation still requires time and skill and resources. The project team observed that the cities and towns that appear to be doing relatively well have little in common in terms of geographic distribution, per capita income, rural vs. urban, etc., except that the three largest communities visited all seem to be struggling with issues directly related to their size. For example, all seem to find if extraordinarily difficult to coordinate compliance across numerous large and relatively autonomous departments. Indifference or inconsistent support of senior elected officials is also a shared concern in these cities, as are the pressing weight of poverty among their citizenry and the relative lack of resources for responding to a whole array of needs.

It is within a diverse cross section of small and mid-size municipalities that ADA compliance seems to have been most effectively integrated. One hypothesis to account for this is that the communities that are doing relatively well may benefit from a good fit between the basic principles and values of the ADA and the culture of their municipal governments. Given that strong individuals also seem to emerge as champions of the ADA in these communities, it may be that the institutional culture predisposes these governments to be responsive to such champions and lets them develop as leaders.

Even among the cities and towns that seem to be doing relatively well, major gaps in written policies and procedures, as well as barriers to building and facility access, remain.

Many of the coordinators and informants interviewed were justifiably proud of their ability to respond to requests for job accommodations, reasonable modifications to operating procedures and communications aids. But such confidence in the ability to solve problems whenever the need arises can be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this kind of confidence is often an expression of the energy, commitment, values and skills on which an effective compliance process must depend, but it can also be associated with a tendency to discount the importance of carrying out a thorough Self-Evaluation and developing clear and explicit policies and procedures in all areas of Title II implementation.

While none of the coordinators or officials directly argued that the regulations call for more than is needed to get the job done, this seemed to be the sub-text in a number of conversations. Our response to this notion—that the Title II regulations impose a lot of bureaucratic detail that is essentially a waste of time and might even get in the way—is two fold:

1) having procedures in place -such as guidance on how to access communication resources- enables municipal staff to respond in a more timely way and to provide higher quality service; and 2) having policies and procedures in place gives municipal staff a stronger base for responding to the most problematic situations (i.e., situations that involve conflict, disparity of perception and the possibility of having to say ‘no’ based on considerations of fundamental alteration, undue burden or undue hardship). In other words, thorough policies and procedures help public officials navigate troubled waters.

Section V
Recommendations and Conclusion

The following recommendations describe a series of steps towards strengthening Title implementation in Connecticut’s cities and towns. They are intended to serve as the basis for discussion at the meeting of ADA coordinators and disability advocates to be convened shortly after the submission of this report. In addition to presenting the findings of the study, the purpose of the gathering will be to seek a consensus on the need for action to strengthen Title II compliance and to adopt a mechanism to facilitate communication and carry out actions that may grow out of the recommendations. With this purpose in mind, the first recommendation proposes the establishment of an association for promoting collaboration among municipal ADA coordinators.

1.  Create a statewide association of municipal ADA Coordinators to facilitate communication and peer support, and to disseminate resources and information on effective Title II planning and implementation practices.

Organizing a statewide ADA municipal coordinators support network is the logical first step towards strengthening Title II implementation. It also would appear to be one that is relatively easy to accomplish given the level of interest expressed by informants. The logic of the recommendation rests first of all on the observation that there is a very high correlation between excellence in the quality of ADA implementation within any municipality and the presence of a strong coordinator. The most effective coordinators not only provide leadership in carrying out the technical aspects of the compliance process, they also champion and articulate the principles and values of the ADA to their colleagues and to the general public. And while the energy, the skill and the commitment of the coordinator is not sufficient in and of itself to ensure that a high standard of ADA performance is achieved, it is almost universally an important factor contributing to such success.

2.  Provide a program of training and technical assistance in response to needs identified by the state network of municipal ADA Coordinators.

Many coordinators and other informants expressed interest in receiving additional training on ADA compliance to cover issues such as:

• Understanding the standards and principles of barrier free design,
• Conducting facility access assessments and carrying out Transition Plans,
• Providing job accommodations and defining the limits of reasonability,
• Purchasing, renting and scheduling auxiliary communication aids and services and using them skillfully.

A significant proportion of the informants interviewed during site visits and follow-up conversations expressed strong interest in such training. The best way to evaluate these training needs in detail will be for the municipal coordinators association discussed above to take on this function as one of its primary tasks. Having established the demand and clear training priorities, a funding strategy can be formulated for soliciting public and private sources of support for training activities and technical assistance.

3.  Develop regulatory mechanism to ensure consistent enforcement of state architectural accessibility standards.

The large number of non-accessible and unsafe conditions identified during the site assessments can be attributed not only to deficiencies in the transition planning process, but also to an underlying weakness in the way Connecticut enforces or rather fails to enforce its state access codes and standards. Because of the way in which state and federal access codes and standards interact, it is almost inevitable that lack of a strong and consistent state system of access regulation will undermine fulfillment of ADA program and facility accessibility obligations. And because federal access enforcement process is distant, cumbersome and almost entirely complaint driven, the best way to address these deficiencies is at the state and not the federal level. A strategy is needed for the development of a coalition of groups—the proposed ADA coordinator’s association among them—which stand to benefit from stronger state access enforcement. The current downturn in state revenues makes this a difficult time for pursuing legislative action with a dollar sign attached, but planning should proceed to formulate a proposal for future legislative action that would establish a regulatory board with sufficient authority and resources to adjudicate complaints, promulgate policy and standards, hear requests for waivers and provide training and technical assistance.

4.  Encourage state funding entities to prioritize municipal capital requests supporting ADA implementation.

This recommendation was proposed by a town manager who expressed frustration that in his experience decisions by state funders on capital requests submitted by municipalities often fail to support the kinds of renovations and new construction most needed to bring municipal programs into ADA compliance and to enhance the delivery of municipal services for all citizens. While there are complexities underlying this issue far beyond the grasp of the authors of this study, we have included this proposal for discussion as it represents precisely the kind of question that coordinators as a body should consider for inclusion in their common agenda.

5.  Develop and disseminate a comprehensive guide to effective communication resources and services in the state.

Most coordinators and respondents express strong interest in practical, dependable, user friendly, ‘plug and play’ compliance materials. One of the best opportunities to provide such support is through development and dissemination of a detailed listing of sources of auxiliary aids and services available in Connecticut and adjacent areas, including the whole array of commonly used communications technologies and devices (e.g., TTY’s, assistive listening systems, etc.), sources of sign language interpreters, Braille transcription services, audio-tape production, computer assisted real time transcription, etc. The effective communication resource guide should also include procedures for purchase, rental, and scheduling of services and equipment, suggested lead times, technical instructions on their use, and guidance on interaction with users, such as sensitivity to deaf cultural issues.

6.  Assemble and make available to coordinators a library of ADA resources and materials, including a collection of model ADA policies and procedures, Self-Evaluations, Transition Plans, access assessment checklists, design manuals, training videos and other compliance materials.

In addition to the effective communication resource guide described above, a general library of model ADA materials should be collected and made available to coordinators. Best practices and materials could be identified through recommendations by coordinators who have used them and made available on line whenever possible.

7.  Strengthen involvement of Individuals and organizations representing disability constituencies in municipal ADA compliance planning and progress reviews.

Title II requires that all interested parties, including persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, be afforded the opportunity to participate in the self-evaluation process at least by giving them the opportunity to comment on draft plans and proposed actions. Review of the documents submitted in 1999, along with survey responses, gave few indications of such participation by persons with disabilities, or the representatives, in the ADA planning and implementation process. The ADA Title II Action Guide went beyond this minimum requirement  recommending creative involvement of people with disabilities as one c the core principles of effective ADA compliance. There are innumerable examples of active and creative involvement by persons with disabilities their family members and representative organizations over the past decade in Connecticut and elsewhere. These include direct participation on access assessment teams of those who are knowledgeable about access codes and barrier free design, the use of focus groups to discus the strengths and weaknesses of programs and facilities, regular involvement of local commissions on disability in the planning an decision making process, etc.

8. Encourage city and town governments to conduct quality reviews of the process and outcomes of previous ADA compliance efforts; establish additional goals and timelines to achieve full compliance and to enhance the quality of services provided to persons with disabilities.

Despite the very substantial progress made since 1992 in removing barrier to the participation of persons with disabilities, it is clear that man communities have not yet thoroughly fulfilled their Title II obligations. It also appears from interviews that many municipal officials are not aware of the extent of the deficiencies that need to be addressed. Cities and towns that have met their obligations fully may also find a thorough ADA compliance review valuable as a quality assurance procedure in upgrading the services that they provide, in clarifying defensible limits to their obligations, and in preventing and resolving conflicts and disputes. The need for thorough and candid reviews of progress is easiest to demonstrate in the area of architectural accessibility, but it can also be shown in each of the areas of employment, communications and generic program operations. The essential task for most municipalities is to develop realistic yet thorough multi-year implementation plans. These plans should begin with thorough review of existing policies an4 procedures and the adoption of additional policies and procedures a necessary. Once these are in place the continuing need will be for thorough training of staff and regular progress and quality reviews that are reported to the public.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the purpose of this study has been to draw awareness to the importance of the ADA in the lives of the more than a half million citizens in the state of Connecticut who have disabilities and to the central role that municipal government must play in ensuring their full participation in the life of the community. Not surprisingly, in looking at the current state of municipal compliance, what we find is a mix of progress and unfinished business. While a substantial proportion of communities has made significant progress over the past twelve years, others lag seriously behind. And even in those cities and towns that have made the most progress, a great deal remains to be done to produce buildings and facilities that are safe and usable, to ensure that the flow of communications is open to all, to provide equal employment opportunity, and to operate all public services in a way that is responsive to the individual needs of citizens with disabilities.

The challenges of compliance are substantial, particularly at a time when public revenues are lower than at any time since the passage of the ADA. But the whole point of the systematic compliance effort outlined in the recommendations is to put the foundation in place for an effort that moves forward with continuity in good times and bad, reflecting enduring commitment to the fundamental values underlying the ADA and all civil rights mandates: the principal of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law.



Content Last Modified on 9/29/2004 7:12:33 AM