Historic buildings present challenge for those with disabilities

April 27, 2017 07:22 PM

This story has no easy solutions: A daughter was trying to take her mother out for Easter brunch.

Her mom's in a wheelchair, and the restaurant's bathroom isn't fully accessible. The owners have done their best in a difficult situation, and that's why we've decided not to include the name of the restaurant in this story.  But it illustrates a problem the disabled face in so many of our older and historic buildings.

Kelly O'Brien spends much of her days with her mom, Judy O’Brien, since illness has stolen Judy's ability to walk.

“She had a seizure in November, and it's been a long haul - hospital and then rehab," Kelly explained. But the family wanted to keep their annual tradition of celebrating Easter at one of their favorite restaurants.

"It's got a great brunch,” said Kelly. "It's got everything you need - the mimosas the desserts."

But she this year was not a good experience because they learned the bathroom is not fully wheelchair accessible. The doorway is 28 inches wide.  That’s not wide enough for Judy's wheelchair.

"So, I literally had to pick her up and coach her and struggle to get her into a very small bathroom," said Kelly. It was so much of a struggle Judy bruised her arm in the effort.

"It's just an unfortunate thing. We feel terrible about it," said Dawn Wayne, the restaurant owner. The building that houses the restaurant was built in 1808. It's on the National Register of Historic Places -- making it impossible to make substantive structural changes.

"You're not supposed to do anything to deface the historical structure of the house," Dawn said.

That means Dawn can't widen the bathroom door because contractors would have to destroy the fireplace which is part of the original structure. It's a quandary that makes it very difficult for restaurant owner and patron alike.

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While Dawn says she's made all the changes her historic building will allow, she wasn't legally bound to do so. In fact, according to the Center for Disability rights, buildings built before the year 2000 only have to be made accessible when they renovate. Ericka Jones, the center’s systems advocate, says accessibility is a real challenge in the Rochester area.

"Many of these buildings are older,” said Ericka. "Many have easy fixes though."

And that's the goal - working together with the disabled community to find a fix that allows the disabled to enjoy what everyone else takes for granted.

“They should be able to enjoy their favorite restaurant or coffee place and not have a struggle to get into there,” said Kelly.

While there are many limitations in making changes to buildings on the historic registry, there are a number of easy fixes many buildings can make to make them accessible. If you encounter an accessibility problem, here’s Deanna’s Do List.

1. Contact the Center for Disability Rights. (website)

2. File a complaint with New York’s division of Human Rights


Deanna Dewberry

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