Belfast couple pushes for better handicap accessibility at post office
Belfast — On a recent Friday morning, Neva Allen did something most would consider routine when she visited the Belfast Post Office.
Most would not think twice about running that particular errand, usually getting in and out of the building relatively quickly to conduct business.
But for Neva Allen, just getting inside the post office unassisted is a challenge.
Neva Allen uses a motorized scooter that is powered by a joystick situated on one of the arm rests, and she said while the cement ramp alongside the post office is very helpful, the challenge comes when she reaches the door.
That's because there is no button located on the side of the door that allows it to swing open automatically. Instead, that button is located at the front entrance, which Neva Allen said she cannot utilize because it sits atop a set of wooden steps.
"The whole idea of the button being located over there really irritates me," she said.
Her husband Stephen Allen agreed.
"Trying to negotiate this door open, while maneuvering a scooter as well, is virtually an impossible task," he said.
The Allens said when they inquired at the post office about the lack of a button at the side door, they were told that the door is attached to a "plunger" mechanism that allows a person to tap the door in order for it to swing open independent of any physical force. But when Neva Allen attempted to do that Friday morning, the door did not swing open as she had hoped it would.
The Allens said opening a heavy door unassisted can be difficult for many who use a wheel chair or a scooter because they sometimes lack muscular strength in their arms.
Calls seeking comment from the Belfast Post Office placed Tuesday morning, May 6, and Friday morning, May 9, were not returned as of Monday, May 12.
For now, Neva Allen said when she goes to the post office on her own, she waits until another customer arrives to open the door for her. Stephen Allen said that is unacceptable, considering the Americans with Disabilities Act calls for businesses and public buildings to make reasonable accommodations so that people with physical disabilities can access the services provided therein.
It is especially problematic here in midcoast Maine, Stephen Allen said, where winter temperatures routinely drop below freezing and can make for an uncomfortable wait for someone in Neva Allen's situation.
"Waiting until I see someone come along who is nice enough to open the door is not what the federal government would call satisfactory," he said. "Under ADA, all buildings that serve the public, if they can be made accessible, must be made accessible... What makes this even worse is that this is not only a building the public uses, it is a public building."
"They could put a buzzer on this door so at least somebody on the inside of the building could come and let us in," suggested Neva Allen.
This is the latest chapter in a mission the Allens began about two years ago, when the couple was appointed co-chairs of the Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Belfast. One of the group's first projects, undertaken at Neva Allen's suggestion, was to make more local businesses handicap accessible. A survey Stephen Allen conducted when beginning that effort showed about 50 percent of Belfast businesses were accessible.
These days, after lots of research and outreach efforts on the committee's part and a variety of moves to make those changes on the parts of area businesspeople, the Allens say 80 percent of local businesses have found a way to make their buildings accessible. One example of this is the hinged, lightweight and portable steel ramp that is now in use at the local Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, and the Allens say there are several other examples just like it in the downtown area.
The Allens would like to see a similar change happen at the Belfast Post Office.
In an emailed response to The Republican Journal, United States Postal Service Northeast Regional spokeswoman Melissa Lohnes stated post offices, and other federal buildings, must comply with accessibility regulations outlined in laws enacted prior to ADA, largely the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.
"The Postal Service follows The Architectural Barriers Act, which requires that Postal Service buildings (both owned and leased) are accessible to the physically handicapped," stated Lohnes.
Lohnes also stated that the postal service must also adhere to standards outlined in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which according to the text of the law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in programs or activities either conducted by federal agencies or by organizations receiving federal funds.
The United States Access Board is the independent federal agency created in 1973 and charged with ensuring access to federal buildings and enforcement of accessibility standards. According to the U.S. Access Board's website, ABA dictates that federal buildings and facilities, and places leased by agencies receiving federal funds, are required to meet accessibility standards including one stating that "whenever possible that physically handicapped persons will have ready access to, and use of, such buildings."
A weighty issue
But U.S. Access Board Spokesman Dave Yanchulis said a power-assisted door is not always a requirement under ABA because the issue comes down to how much effort it would take to open the door in question.
"The lack of an automatic opener on an exterior door does not constitute a violation of the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) Accessibility Standards. The ABA Standards limit the opening force of interior doors to five pounds of force and would require automation where manual doors cannot meet this requirement," said Yanchulis Monday, May 12, in response to an inquiry from The Journal.
The five pounds maximum opening force is not applied to exterior doors, Yanchulis explained, because of factors that impact the closing force of such doors, including wind loading, gasketing, energy efficiency, and the weight of doors.
While outfitting exterior doors with a power-assist button may not be a requirement under ABA, Yanchulis said in some cases, the board "strongly recommends automation, especially where the opening force is likely to be significant."
"Otherwise, exterior door closers should be calibrated with the least force necessary for closure to minimize the opening force," Yanchulis said. "... In some of the Board's ABA cases, responsible agencies have voluntarily included automation of exterior doors in undertaking corrective action."
In addition, Yanchulis said the U.S. Postal Service and all other federal agencies must ensure access to programs and services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a requirement that may necessitate further action beyond the minimum specified under ABA .
The Allens hope to see a change in the current entranceway setup at the Belfast Post Office, not only for Neva Allen's convenience, but for that of others in the community who would benefit from it.
"The ramp is just fine, but with the button on the front door where there are eight wooden steps, that button is virtually useless," said Stephen Allen.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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