Hundreds of ADA violations found in Atlanta buildings

Estimated cost is $13.8 million, city has three years to fix the problems

Already struggling to keep its financial house in order, the city of Atlanta faces a potential $13.8 million problem in the Americans With Disabilities Act.

U.S. Justice Department officials recently conducted a random inspection of 56 city buildings and found hundreds of violations of the federal law concerning access to the disabled.

Problems include no wheelchair-accessible seating in the City Council Chamber, signs at City Hall that are not in Braille and a lack of drinking fountains in the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency for people “who have difficulty bending or stooping.”

Justice Department officials and the city agreed to a deal that gives Atlanta three years to fix the problems.

The work is estimated to cost $13.8 million, but city officials say they expect to spend less money to make the repairs.

But several City Council members are disturbed about the situation, particularly since violations were found in 25 buildings that were constructed after 1992, when the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted.

Councilman Howard Shook has asked the city’s Law Department to investigate why so many of these buildings were constructed with violations of the federal law.

“If someone was being paid to watch this, their wages should be garnished,” Shook said in an interview.

City officials contend most of the problems in the buildings constructed since 1992 are issues such as items that can be easily moved that were blocking pathways, making it difficult for the disabled to maneuver past them. They say these are issues in buildings regardless of when they were built.

The officials say the problems can be fixed at minimal cost.

“There’s a potential for our cost to be much lower than estimated,” said Lisa Gordon, the city’s enterprise assets management officer.

The multimillion-dollar repairs come at a difficult time for the city. The council last month voted 8-7 in favor of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s proposal to raise property taxes to fill a $56 million budget gap.

The majority of the buildings inspected are city recreation centers or other parks facilities. They also include the Chastain Ampitheater and the city’s Civic Center.

Most of the problems concentrate on structural deficiencies that make it difficult for the blind, the disabled or the hearing impaired to use city bathrooms or get around city buildings. The federal officials also found it’s tougher for the blind or hearing impaired to keep up with meetings.

Joshua Norris, who works for a group that aims to protect the rights of the disabled, said he’s not surprised by the findings, noting similar problems in other local and state government buildings.

“It should be an example for other local governments to think about,” Norris, director of legal advocacy of the Georgia Advocacy Office, said of the Justice Department’s findings.

Norris said the city must also do a better job maintaining its sidewalks, noting many of them are difficult for people in wheelchairs to use. The City Council passed a transportation plan last year that says Atlanta needs to repair many of its sidewalks. The city, however, has not found funding for the entire plan.

Justice Department officials are scheduled to return to Atlanta in a few months to gauge the city’s progress.

“The city has a strong commitment to correcting these issues, and it will continue its commitment,” Gordon said.