Les Burton doesn’t want anyone else to face what he did to get justice in Ferry County’s handicap-inaccessible courthouse.
Burton has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had to be helped out of the building after an exhausting climb to the second-floor courtroom.
A wheelchair lift that was installed four years ago could have prevented Burton’s ordeal, but frustrated county officials say it has seldom worked. Repairs have failed time after time, they say.
“We had a juror who was in a wheelchair and he was able to use it for two days, and I think that’s the longest it has worked,” Superior Court Clerk Jean Booher said.
Burton, of St. Maries, didn’t know stairs provided the only access to Ferry County’s second-floor courtroom when he arrived in April for a small-claims case he and his business partner, Spokane resident Gary McGlasson, had filed.
Court officials can move hearings to accessible buildings if given notice. They found out too late in Burton’s case, though, and instead offered to let him testify by telephone.
Burton didn’t think he would be able to hear the proceedings and felt it was important to testify in person.
“So my partner helped me and I managed to get up the stairs,” he said.
Burton’s wife, Mary, carried his walker while he and McGlasson struggled up.
“It looked to be quite arduous,” said Prosecutor Mike Sandona, who later helped Public Works employee Louis Miller take Burton downstairs on an emergency evacuation sled.
“Everybody in the courthouse turned out to see the circus, damn near,” Burton said of his exit. “Nobody should be humiliated to that extent. I don’t think anybody should be forced to go through that.
“By the time I got back out of there, I was completely wiped out,” Burton said. “I had used up all of the energy I had. … I slept most of the way home.”
“That’s unacceptable. It’s appalling,” said Superior Court Judge Rebecca Baker. “If you don’t have access to the courtroom, what kind of access to justice do you have?”
Burton and his wife say they likely will have no reason to return to the courthouse but plan a complaint to the state Human Rights Commission on behalf of future visitors.
People with disabilities should “have a little dignity when they go to court, not be swung around like a sack of potatoes,” Mary Burton said.
“Until you are a caregiver spouse or the handicapped person,” she said, “you don’t realize how many barriers are put up and how much the handicapped are made to feel they are not equal.”
County officials say they do their best to accommodate disabilities, coming downstairs to issue vehicle license tabs or holding court in other buildings. But they acknowledge that people with disabilities want to be independent.
“The fact is that people need the ability to get up there on their own,” County Commissioner Bob Heath said.
That includes the elderly, Heath said. “They want to do things themselves, and they don’t want you waiting on them hand and foot.”
Les Burton agreed: “While we were there, we saw an elderly woman with a cane struggling with the stairs, and she was a local.”
Sharon Ortiz, executive director of the state Human Rights Commission, said Burton’s complaint probably will be put on a fast track. She said the agency tries to resolve problems without litigation, but is empowered to sue if a person with disabilities is denied services.
County officials say they would have resolved the problem a long time ago if they had enough money. But Ferry County has long been one of the poorest counties in the state, and only about 17 percent of its land base is taxable.
“When you’re so broke you’ve got to look up to see bottom, what do you do?” former County Commissioner Jim Hall said 10 years ago, when commissioners already had been talking about the access problem for nearly a decade.
Details are sketchy because of turnover among staff and elected officials, but the county installed the wheelchair lift and a wheelchair ramp in July 2006 with a grant.
Heath, who took office last year, thinks the wheelchair lift cost about $60,000.
The lift was custom-manufactured by Garaventa Lift of Vancouver, B.C., and was installed by Sterling Elevator Co. Another company subsequently purchased Sterling, and Garaventa designated a different U.S. distributor.
Garaventa spokesman Bruce Ramsay said the company has “gone well above” the one-year warranty. He said Garaventa paid for $2,675 worth of repairs a year ago, “and we gave them all kinds of free parts.”
According to Ramsay, the problem is that Ferry County hasn’t contracted for regular twice-yearly maintenance, a county worker made unauthorized repairs and the lift has been mishandled.
County Risk Manager Jill Gates disputes the unauthorized work and blames “bad design” for the fact that the lift breaks down if “any pressure at all” is applied to a safety bar that is supposed to open on its own.
County commissioners have asked Sandona to pursue legal action, but he says commissioners first need to have an engineer figure out what’s wrong with the lift.
Gates said commissioners are convinced the wheelchair lift can’t be repaired and are considering other solutions, including an elevator.
An elevator presents several problems. Aside from the cost, there’s the question of where to put one in a cramped historic landmark.
“I do think that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Baker said.