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City begins accessibility upgrades

Polling places, emergency communications, sidewalks and other facilities will see changes during the next three years to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act under a sweeping settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The city has started work under a 17-page settlement agreement in which officials agreed to make upgrades to 19 buildings and parks and to make other policy changes to make city services more accessible to people with disabilities.

"We have a lot of older buildings and a lot of older properties and we have to bring them up to date," said Christopher Mazur, the city's deputy corporation counsel. "We realize that, and we're working with the Justice Department to make sure that we're going to provide folks with disabilities the best access we can."

The wide-ranging settlement is one of 167 in the country signed by the Department of Justice under its Civic Access program in which the agency undertakes a total review of facilities in a town or city in an attempt to bring governments into compliance.

The City Council on Monday approved a $280,000 contract with Foit Albert Associates to provide "scoping and design phases" of the project to meet the terms of the settlement agreement.

The city also adopted a non-discrimination policy for individuals with disabilities Monday.

Other planned changes under the settlement include:

*Physical changes to buildings so that parking, entrances, public telephones, restrooms, fountains and counters are accessible to people with disabilities;

*Ensuring calls made through telephone relay devices to the city's 911 system are answered as quickly as other calls;

*Making the city's Web site accessible to visually and hearing impaired citizens;

*Making election polling sites accessible; and

*Implementing a plan to add curb cuts to sidewalks.

The Department of Justice first reviewed buildings and facilities in Niagara Falls in 2000 and 2004 and returned late last year with its findings. The city signed the agreement July 30.

Todd Vaarwerk, a disability rights advocate for Independent Living of Niagara County, said the settlement agreement is "rare" because of its scope and detail. Most settlements under the Americans with Disabilities Act focus on a particular complaint.

"The depth and the specificity of the agreement catches my attention and the fact that the city agreed to as much of this as they did in a settlement agreement should make us very proud," Vaarwerk said.

Vaarwerk said the settlement could help influence other communities to meet guidelines set in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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