City fails to comply with ADA law at Finlay Park

Published: Jun. 10, 2014 at 3:15 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 9, 2014 at 2:51 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A WIS Investigation uncovers 24 years after the American Disabilities Act, many Columbia recreational areas still don't meet the letter of the law.

The City's Parks and Recreation Department says outdoor areas are a challenge and an expense to bring into compliance. But the City claims to have one of the largest handicapped-accessible parks in the country.

The City calls it an "oasis" downtown. It's a park where a lot of annual events happen, both city planned and private events.

Finlay Park is often the image used to identify Columbia, but WIS' investigation discovered the design of the park doesn't exactly meet the law. In fact, a Parks and Recreation department employee said only half of the city's 60 parks and recreational facilities are handicapped-accessible.

On the City of Columbia's website, a description for Finlay Park states, "This is one of the largest handicapped-accessible parks in the country. … You can easily spend a whole day here with kids of any age." That's not what Regina Frye found.

"The start line was at the top. Well my question was, 'How do you get from the bottom to the top?'" Frye said. "I actually walked the street to find a wheelchair ramp and was unable to find one."

Frye is right. Inside the park, there's only one way up – the steps.

"When we're faced with that obstacle, it's not a matter of, 'No, I can't do it.' It's, 'Let's figure out how to do it,'" she said.

The Fryes have been mounting obstacles for nine years. Their son, TJ, was born without a left hip.

"I raised him like there's nothing wrong just because I don't want him to think, 'Oh well, I'm disabled. I can't do it.' No, you're going to do what everybody else does or at least attempt it," Frye said.

They did attempt it. Flight after flight, they went up and down the steps.

WIS' investigation uncovered the American Disabilities Act was put in place the same year Finlay Park opened.

"When you're within the park, there is not really an access, an ADA complaint access that can take you from the lower to the upper area, and a lot of that has to do with topography of the park," said Jeffrey Caton, director for Columbia Parks and Recreation.

Kimberly Tissot, Able South Carolina's director, said getting businesses and governments to comply with the law is a challenge.

"We should not be having issues," Tissot said. "We should not even be discriminated against after this federal law has passed, and unfortunately, people with disabilities are still denied access."

The City is working to improve access to its parks. The new center at Earlewood Park and some of the trails have newly upgraded handicapped access. Changes are also coming to Riverfront Park.

"We're looking at our parking, starting in our parking lot, to make sure we have not only an adequate number, but that those parking spaces meet ADA standards," Caton said. "And then we look as we approach the trail itself, as we come off of the bridge, over the canal, that we have a ramping issue that doesn't meet the standards."

The City also admits the ramping to the bathrooms is not ADA compliant.

"They want to have access to recreation," Tissot said. "We want to go to the park, and we want to have a great time. Just because we have a disability does not mean that we can't have fun. We want to have fun and participate in those social events."

Frye said she's not just calling attention to the issue for her son, but for anyone needing an easy way up and down the steps. ADA compliance encompasses not just wheelchairs, but strollers, the elderly, the blind, deaf and those with intellectual disabilities.

"I want him to be able to say, "Hey, let's try this. Let me see if I can do it,' versus sit and cry because he can't do it," Frye said. "I don't want that for him, and I don't want that for anybody who is physically unable to do steps or anything like that."

She worries if issues aren't addressed that what are now fears may become reality.

"My fear is he's going to get bigger, and if there's not adjustments for someone in a wheelchair, it's going to be where he's going to be unable to participate in anything," Frye said.

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