Norma Hurley wrapped her black cane in cheerful red ribbon and headed off to the Charles County Courthouse for a joyous occasion, the wedding of a granddaughter.
Her mood took a sharp dip when she reached the new courthouse door, tried to pull it open--and failed. Hurley, who copes with progressive muscle weakening, waited frustrating minutes until a passerby did her the favor.
"I was just shocked," said Hurley, 65--shocked that a courthouse could present such an obstacle, nine years after landmark federal legislation to ensure the rights of the disabled.
Her predicament is not unique. Despite their potent symbolic role as the seat of justice and their prominence as landmarks of community life, courthouses all too often don't accommodate the fifth of the American population for whom stairs and heavy doors can be barriers, advocates for the disabled say.
"There's definitely a problem of access to the courts," said John Parry, director of an American Bar Association standing commission on disability law. "It's pretty well-known within the legal and disability communities. . . . They are lagging, as are other areas of society."
Parry and others who track disability issues said they know of no surveys showing exactly what portion of the nation's courthouses, which serve more than 14,000 cities and counties, don't comply with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
The law establishes access to public buildings and programs as a civil right. Advocates for the disabled say the judiciary, as guarantor of rights, carries a special burden to set an example.
Yet courthouses include barriers common to other settings: doors that are obstacles rather than portals, restroom stalls too narrow for wheelchair users and water fountains too high to be reached from a wheelchair.
Because many of them were constructed decades before the disabilities act, courthouses also face unique problems. In older buildings, sweeping marble staircases may evoke the majesty of the law but may be impassable to some visitors, and ornate doors can be stubbornly heavy.
And while retrofitted ramps, elevators and automatic doors can eliminate architectural barriers, courthouse furnishings can present other problems. The few steps up to jury boxes and witness stands place such fixtures out of reach for those using wheelchairs.
Attorneys who use wheelchairs may find the judge's chambers cloistered down narrow passageways or lined with thick, wheel-catching carpeting.
"You never know what you're going to get until you're there, and each one is going to be different," said Dale R. Reid, a lawyer in Carroll County.
For example, Reid said, the Court of Appeals Building in Annapolis, which houses Maryland's highest court, is defended by scenic but formidable outdoor steps. Wheelchair users must search out an elevator tucked away in a parking garage, though the law calls for entrances to be shared by the disabled and the able-bodied.
Before he sets out for any courtroom, Reid makes sure to sling a plastic shopping bag loaded with wooden blocks over the handles of his wheelchair. In many trials, he must chock up the legs of a table built too low for him to sit at it in his wheelchair.
Reid was among plaintiffs who last year won a federal court ruling ordering Baltimore to improve its circuit court. The plaintiffs had cited vehicle unloading zones that guide wheelchairs into heavy street traffic, steep and barely navigable ramps and heavy interior doors with raised thresholds.
U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis in his ruling chastised court administrators. "There are are serious ramifications when the very institution designed to ensure the delivery of equal justice under law to all individuals perpetuates . . . discrimination," Davis wrote.
The U.S. Justice Department investigates courthouse compliance with the disabilities act if it receives complaints. Currently, 104 such probes are pending across the country, said Liz Savage, a top aide in the department's civil rights division.
Many of the cases involve complaints that courts don't provide such assistance as hearing aids or sign-language interpreters, Savage said. She said 34 involve reported barriers to physical access.
In Maryland and Virginia, where courthouse administration is shared by the states and counties, state court administrators early this decade asked local officials to survey their buildings for accessibility. Results have not been centrally tabulated, said officials in each state.
"The idea was it would be locally followed through because they're the ones getting the complaints," said Sally W. Rankin, spokeswoman for Maryland's Administrative Office of the Courts.
In general, courts need not undergo expensive renovations if they are not compliant with the disabilities act, though they must offer to accommodate the disabled. For instance, a hearing scheduled for an inaccessible second-floor courtroom could be moved to a first-floor room. And new construction or renovation must comply fully with the federal law.
That is where the troublesome door in Charles County comes in.
Officials were aiming for more space and for better access for the disabled when they decided to rebuild the cramped entrance to their 1896-vintage courthouse in La Plata, about 25 miles south of Washington.
Work finished last November, at a cost of $506,795, grafted an airy two-story glass room onto the rear of the brick building. Set in the exterior wall of the new room are the entrance and exit doors--gleaming metal-and-glass slabs 3 feet wide and nearly 8 feet tall.
Hurley, of Nanjemoy in western Charles County, first encountered the doors in July after walking up a circuitous ramp for the disabled.
Her dismay was instantaneous.
"Frustration is what I was feeling: 'Oh, no! I've gotten all the way around and gotten up there, and now I can't get in,' " she recounted recently. "There must be a standard someplace."
Federal guidelines do not require automatic doors that open with the press of a button. Such doors cost $5,000 to $7,000 in a commercial setting, said Philip Fornaci, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center.
County officials, who build and maintain the courthouse, never considered an automatic door, said Michael T. Mudd, director of public facilities.
"As far as we're concerned, we're in full compliance" with the disabilities act, Mudd said. "Certainly buttons are nice, but I don't know of any county buildings that have it."
Not all wheelchair users need or expect automatic doors.
"This is a piece of cake," Kevin R. Detwiler said after entering the courthouse. He assesses public buildings for the Center for LIFE, a private group that promotes independent living.
Detwiler, 28, of Valley Lee in St. Mary's County, uses a power wheelchair controlled by a custom-rigged toggle stick. He works out daily, is proud of his strength and evinces a kind of bravado in the face of mundane obstacles. "Because of my ingenuity, I can do it," he said. "I will survive."
His boss, Barbara Hayden, the group's regional director, said arthritis and lupus, an immunologic problem, have cut into her upper body strength. She tried the door.
"I find it hard to get in," Hayden said. "What we're looking for is independence, so someone doesn't have to ask for help."
Many court patrons, including senior citizens and those who use canes, struggle with the door, said Donna G. Burch, the elected court clerk.
She said she often scrambles to help. "It's hard. They struggle. . . . I run up and say, 'I'll get that!' " Burch said.
Charles County Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large), the county's top elected official, said the county would examine the balky door. "If people can't get in, we need to fix it," he said.