One of the tougher and potentially expensive issues facing the Reagan administration is the question of how accessible public facilities should be for the handicapped, particularly those in wheelchairs. The issue is seen by handicapped groups as, quite simply, a question of civil rights.
It has been joined again by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (one of those agencies the administration proposed "zero funding" for in the new fiscal year), which fired off a petition to the General Services Administration seeking easier access for wheelchairs to jury boxes, witness stands, judge's benches and court reporter stations in federal courthouses being built in San Jose and Springfield, Mass.
The petition asks an administrative law judge to find that the lack of wheelchair accommodations in those facilities puts GSA in violation of its own standards for accessibility. (The board isn't arguing from the point of view of its controversial minimum guidelines and requirements for accessible design, which will be debated once again next week.) Robert Mather, an attorney for the board, said, "We are gravely concerned that the design of the courtrooms be complied with in the initial design. The cost of redoing is much larger than the cost of revising . . . . We're also concerned that handicapped people have equal opportunity to participate in courtroom procedure."
Jack Mulligan, a GSA attorney, said this is an attempt by the board to reopen another case involving the same issues at the Richard Russell Federal Building in Atlanta. That case has been heard by a law judge and is awaiting a ruling, he said. The allegations, he said, do not concern public areas, such as access to the building. In the courtroom, he said, "We could put a wheelchair next to" the jury box. "Our position is we'll wait and hear on Atlanta" before deciding on a response in the San Jose-Springfield case, Mulligan said.