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Fighting for accessibility

Barb McKeever can't walk. She writes with difficulty. Her shaking hand painstakingly scratches B-a-r-b. The 45-year-old Fargo woman doesn't hear well and sometimes people can't understand her speech. But McKeever's physical limitations don't stop...

Barb McKeever

Barb McKeever can't walk.

She writes with difficulty. Her shaking hand painstakingly scratches

B-a-r-b.

The 45-year-old Fargo woman doesn't hear well and sometimes people can't understand her speech.

But McKeever's physical limitations don't stop her. Neither do bricks and mortar.

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McKeever wants to make sure buildings don't hinder people with disabilities. For years, she has asked local businesses and public places to make changes to be more accessible.

Sometimes, she takes them to court.

Since 2003, she has filed four lawsuits in Fargo's federal court aimed at making businesses more accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Three cases were dismissed within a few months of filing. McKeever says she got the results she wanted in each.

A fourth case, filed in June against the Sons of Norway in downtown Fargo, is ongoing.

"There are several reasons I do this," McKeever said by e-mail. "Partly it's because I've always been this way. From Day 1, I've always wanted things to be done right."

Not everyone agrees with her approach, however. For one, a local nonprofit that serves people with disabilities advocates gentler methods of improving access.

Nate Aalgaard, executive director of Freedom Resource for Independent Living, said he prefers to build relationships and educate businesses.

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His group has not sued a business in federal court over ADA laws, though it has filed complaints with the North Dakota Department of Labor's Human Rights Division.

"Everybody has the right to do what she's doing," Chuck Stebbins, a systems change advocate at Freedom, said of McKeever. "It's not our approach."

McKeever said she started filing suits herself, without a lawyer, because she wanted something done. A certified accessibility inspector, she wishes more people would ask for her advice.

"Accessibility is the law, but people don't do anything," she said.

Waking up

McKeever woke up to a new life June 21, 1981, in what's now MeritCare Hospital.

"I remember there was somebody in my room, and I said, 'Where am I? What day is it?'" McKeever said from her apartment recently.

"She said 'This is St. Luke's. This is Sunday.' And I said 'No, what number day?' and she said 'June 21.'

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"And I thought, 'How'd that happen?' I didn't remember anything."

McKeever, then a student at North Dakota State University, flew with a friend to Phoenix during spring break. They and some other friends were in a car crash March 1, 1981.

After lying in an Arizona hospital for three weeks, McKeever was flown to Fargo, where she lay in a coma at St. Luke's until June 1 and in a semi-coma for another three weeks.

McKeever's brain stem was permanently injured. She has no balance, and her coordination isn't good. Her memory from the year before the accident is gone.

"Mom told me before I left (for Phoenix) I was elected president of my sorority, and it was news to me," McKeever said.

She didn't finish school, because it was too difficult to hear and write.

"Besides that, even if I did, who would hire me?" McKeever said. "It's pointless."

She spent years recovering at her parents' home and at facilities in Fargo, Grand Forks, N.D., and a Minneapolis suburb.

In April 1985, McKeever moved into a fourth-floor apartment at New Horizons Manor, a Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority building designed for people with disabilities.

At some point - she can't remember when - McKeever started asking business to make changes.

Accessibility determines where McKeever, a small woman who uses a motorized wheelchair, goes and under what circumstances.

Can she go by herself? Does she need one or both parents to help her? Could a friend help her, and does that friend need to be able-bodied?

McKeever believes her actions help others, including the businesses.

"Every businessman wants his business to be better than the next guy's," McKeever said in e-mail. "That's what competition is all about. If a businessman will make his establishment accessible it will be better than an establishment that isn't."

Bob Getz, director of the Fargo Civic Center, said he's had several conversations with McKeever over the years. She once served on a committee the city set up to examine ADA issues, he said.

Mike Gravalin, owner of Garry's Optician in north Fargo, also said McKeever contacted him about better access.

His business is in a strip mall that dates to the mid-1980s - before ADA legislation was signed in 1990 - and had only one sidewalk ramp.

Based on McKeever's request and other requests, Gravalin asked for a larger handicap parking area when workers re-striped the parking lot this summer.

That's one success story. But over the years, McKeever said she became frustrated when businesses didn't make changes.

She hit the books, and in January 2003 traveled with her parents to Duluth, Minn., where she passed a test to be a certified accessibility inspector.

"But they still don't listen to me," McKeever said

Filing suit

McKeever filed her first lawsuit in Fargo's federal court on Aug. 21, 2003, against MeritCare and MeritCare Neuroscience. She sought accessible restrooms in several MeritCare facilities and for her expenses to be reimbursed. The suit was dismissed Nov. 19, 2003.

"I dread going to the clinic," McKeever wrote in the complaint. "I'm getting old so I have to go downtown more often. MeritCare Neuroscience scares me to death! This is a big deal to me because THIS IS NO WAY TO LIVE MY LIFE!"

Next, she filed suit April 12, 2004, against Trollwood Village Apartments and Convenience Center, asking for more accessible entrances. It was dismissed June 16, 2004.

McKeever sued Trollwood Village Dental on Aug. 15, 2005, asking for a more accessible customer entrance. The suit was dismissed Oct. 12, 2005.

In all of the cases, McKeever said she got the changes she wanted, plus her filing fee refunded.

The manager of one of those businesses said he wishes McKeever's requests could have been handled outside the legal system.

"There's maybe a different way of going about it," said Nate Triebwasser, manager of Trollwood Village Apartments and Convenience Center.

As part of the settlement, his complex is adding push-pad openers to one door a year.

But the complex already planned to make the changes as it could budget for them. The lawsuit forced the changes sooner than budgeted and racked up legal fees, he said.

"It was a considerable expense that could have been spent on other building improvements like handicap door openers," he said.

Triebwasser estimates it costs about $1,800 to install a push-pad opener on each door. Seven doors needed them.

McKeever said she had varying amounts of contact with the businesses before she sued.

She said she wrote two letters to the Sons of Norway before filing her latest lawsuit June 21.

In the lawsuit, she asks for an accessible customer entrance, more accessible restrooms and improved accessibility throughout.

She also asks the Sons of Norway to reimburse her for a $350 filing fee and expenses such as transportation and postage.

"I am not trying to make money, but I cannot afford to lose any, either," McKeever wrote.

Sons of Norway attorney Jonathan Garaas said he couldn't comment about pending litigation. It's set for a July 2007 trial.

McKeever said she'd like to resolve the dispute sooner.

"It would be cheaper for them to settle out of court and so much better for me, for time," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Andrea Domaskin at (701) 241-5556

ADA guidelines

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal civil rights law that prevents people with disabilities from being excluded from everyday activities. The law took effect Jan. 26, 1992. It established requirements for businesses that provide goods or services to the public.

The ADA requires business owners to remove physical barriers that are readily achievable, meaning they can be accomplished without much difficulty or expense.

Here are some examples of ADA guidelines:

- Parking: Each accessible parking spot needs a proper sign, with the fee amount posted.

- Walkways to buildings: Ramps on accessible routes to entrances should be at least 36 inches wide.

- Doors: Power doors are not required. Doors should have handles and not require any pinching, grasping or wrist twisting to open.

- Signs: At doors, they should be mounted on the latch side wall and 60 inches above the floor.

- Restrooms: Stalls should be 5 feet wide and a minimum of 4 feet from the front of the toilet bowl to the stall or room wall.

Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, Freedom Resource Center for Independent Living

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