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Woman, Disabilities Advocacy Group File Action Against City, County

Rebecca Ferrar Aug. 29, 2009

Rebecca Ferrar

12:00 AM, Aug 29, 2009 1251518406000 1251518406000

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Jan English talks to her dog as he retrieves her cell phone earlier this month at her West Knoxville home. The city of Knoxville and Knox County are the targets of lawsuits filed by English and an advocacy group over access for people with disabilities.

.Brian Vodinh runs by the tennis courts at Carl Cowan Park. The lawsuit alleges that the ramp leading to the courts is too steep and the pull side of the gate has insufficient clearance.

Jan English talks to her dog as he retrieves her cell phone earlier this month at her West Knoxville home.

The city of Knoxville and Knox County are the targets of lawsuits filed by English and an advocacy group over access for people with disabilities.

TheGroupID: 221604423 Should have got some outbrain content StoryId: 409653194 gSurveyExcludeCategories : Brand Spotlight Content Container "My goal is to be able to go any place that any person who walks can go."

West Knoxville resident Jan English and a South Florida advocacy group for people with disabilities have filed federal lawsuits against the city of Knoxville, Knox County and the Knox County Commission over what they say is a lack of access for disabled people at city and county parks, city facilities such as sidewalks and the City County Building.

English, 66, who uses a motorized wheelchair and two service dogs, lives with a nerve condition known as Morton's neuroma and reflex sympathetic dystropy after an injury she suffered while serving in the U.S. Marines in the 1960s and 1970s.

The lawsuit against the county cites five county parks that are not accessible to people with disabilities, as well as the City County Building. The lawsuit against the city cites six parks and city sidewalks, accessible routes, curb ramps and parking as having problems for people with disabilities.

The lawsuits were filed by English and Access Now Inc. in U.S. District Court in Knoxville by Birmingham, Ala., attorney Edward Zwilling, who said 90 percent of his practice is such cases.

The City County Building is cited as having 15 accessibility problems, including "insufficient number of accessible parking spaces and van-accessible parking spaces," "the ramp leading to the main entrance lacks a level landing," "handrail extensions are not provided at the top and bottom landings at the ramp," "the elevator emergency call box requires grasping and pinching to open," "high drinking fountains are not provided," "sufficient maneuvering clearance is not provided to exit many of the toilet rooms," and "public-use telephones on the main floor are too high."

Both Randy Kenner, spokesman for Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, and Joe Jarret, the county's chief deputy law director, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

English is no stranger to such lawsuits.

In cooperation with Access Now Inc., she has filed more than a dozen such lawsuits against area businesses since 2002.

The defendants, most of whom settled their cases, include:

- Buddy's Bar-B-Q

- Tennessee Riverboat Company

- West Town Mall

- Regions Bank

- Bank of America

- The Kroger Co.

- University Health System Inc., which manages the University of Tennessee Medical Center

- the downtown Radisson Hotel

- Sam & Andy's restaurants

- Dollywood Co.

In addition to the Knoxville and Knox County governments, English's latest round of lawsuits filed Aug. 3 also includes Radio Systems Corp., which manages the Pet Safe Dog Park in West Knox County, and the Schubert Family Limited Partnership, a local development firm.

English says she considers suing wherever she cannot find suitable access.

"My goal is to be able to go any place that any person who walks can go," she said. "Just because I'm not able-bodied, doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to go where I want. I've got pride. I'm self-reliant up to a point. I've lived in other cities, and I've never had the embarrassments I've had here. Being a disabled veteran, I think I should get better treatment from people."

Asked if she seeks out facilities to sue, English said, "Oh, God, no. I'm not looking for anything. When I decide I want to go someplace and I pack a picnic lunch only to find there's no access for me - I can't park in a regular spot." Her van has a lift for her wheelchair.

Both lawsuits cite violations of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applied to accessibility for the disabled at facilities receiving federal funds before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. The ADA requires accessibility whether or not a facility receives federal funding.

English's co-plaintiff, Access Now, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, is "seeking to have all businesses and public accommodations comply with the law," said president Phyllis Resnick. "We do not seek monetary damages in any shape or form, only remediation - settling the terms of the litigation. It has nothing to do with money except for attorneys' fees."

Of facilities sued, Resnick said, "We do not seek them out. We do not go trolling for them. I get letters and calls from all over the country every day on this. We have joined with individual complainants, and it has to do with lack of compliance throughout the city of Knoxville, and it's hardly the first case of its kind we've mounted."

Attorney Zwilling said, "The main thrust of the case was city and county parks. (English) felt wherever she went, the majority of them were not accessible - the lack of routes through them or parking and toilet rooms as well. We're trying to bring attention to these issues. They should have been addressed a long time ago."

English said she's visited the City County Building many times and has found many problems, especially with parking.

Zwilling described English as a "zealous" advocate for people with disabilities. "She just wants the issues to be fixed. ... Hopefully, there are things that can be fixed without a lot of money," Zwilling said. "It will take time. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these things get worked out. We're very successful at getting relief."

County parks named in the county lawsuit are Admiral Farragut Park, Carl Cowan Park, Concord Park, Guinn Road Park and Solway Park. City parks named in the city lawsuit are West View Park, Victor Ashe Park, Sequoyah Hills Park, Sequoyah Park, Scottish Pike River Park and Whitlow Logan Park.

Rebecca Ferrar may be reached at 865-342-6357. Hayes Hickman contributed to this report.