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Undercurrents: Opening the Virgin Islands to All

Undercurrents, which will be a regular Source feature, slips below the surface of the Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. All these currents churn together making up the community we presume to know. Undercurrents is our bid to get to know ourselves more deeply.

A rather quiet revolution has been taking place in the Virgin Islands the last few years and it’s being led by a most unlikely source: the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

No guns involved. Not even the heavy hand of the law, just some gentle legal nudging to get businesses and local government to comply with federal mandates they be accessible to people who have disabilities.

“A lot of people have the impression that all the U.S. Attorney’s Office does is prosecute people,” said Joycelyn Hewlitt, an assistant U.S. attorney in the St. Thomas Office.

But the Justice Department is also a proactive force in the community. It prosecutes civil fraud cases and civil rights cases aimed at protecting Virgin Islands residents. It also works to protect and compensate crime victims. In the past fiscal year alone, it collected more than $5 million in restitution to crime victims, Hewlitt said.

In 2008 Hewlitt said the office took steps to push the community to more fully implement the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The U.S. Attorney’s concern is with existing structures that are still not fully accessible to people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities, Hewlitt said. “Right now we have 32 of these matters that we are looking at,” she added. These include restaurants, medical facilities, shopping centers, banks “and a ton of government agencies.”

The office has help in identifying noncompliant buildings. Diane Perry, an architect working with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, periodically visits the territory to go with V.I. staff to survey buildings and investigate access issues.

V.I. advocacy groups also work with the office here, Hewlitt said, and of course it accepts complaints from the public. One man reported he was turned away from a supermarket because he is visually impaired and has an assistance dog. Another man called the office to say he is unable to climb the 14 steps to the bathroom at his favorite restaurant.

Some things are an easy fix: Change a door knob, lower a counter. The supermarket was told to educate its employees about exceptions to the rule of no animals on the premises and to post a sign to that effect.

Other things are not so easy.

“Elevators are expensive. We recognize that,” Hewlitt said. So is putting in an additional bathroom on the ground level. And either solution will also take some time to implement.

“We try to work with the people,” she said. “So far, we haven’t had to bring an action in court. We have closed out six (cases) and a lot of work has been done on others.”

Some owners address the problems themselves. Others hire experts who are trained in ADA compliance, Hewlitt said.

One of the earliest successes involved the installation of an elevator at the Recorder of Deeds Office on St. Thomas in 2009. Hewlitt said the case was made easier because the government agency rents from a private landlord, Builder’s Emporium, who was responsive.

Similarly the privately owned FrostCo building, which houses some Labor Department and Special Education offices, readily complied with a request to widen doorways, install handrails, provide parking for the disabled and make other modifications.

Other government agencies had to relocate because it wasn’t feasible to upgrade the buildings in which they were housed.

Several private businesses also have agreed to make improvements that will render them ADA compliant and have signed formal settlements with the U.S. Justice Department. Most recently, Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel owners Great Vistas pledged to install lifts over the next three years, providing full access to its three restaurants, and to make other modifications.

Perhaps the most ambitious project so far is the upgrading of the University of the Virgin Islands campuses. Gerry Buggy, UVI capital projects manager, said work includes the installation of nine lifts on the St. Thomas campus and two on St. Croix, renovations to bathrooms, and the installation of new ramps and the renovation of many existing ones, mostly on St. Thomas.

The Ralph M. Paiewonsky Library on the St. Thomas campus got much of the attention. “We redesigned the reference desk,” Buggy said. A portion of the counter was lowered to make it easier for someone in a wheelchair to check out books. Aisles were widened to accommodate wheel chairs; mobile shelving was installed; and there is now a limited access lift to the mezzanine which houses the limited collection and a few offices.

The budget for the upgrade was $1.5 million and UVI applied for grant money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“We would not have been able to do this without the ARRA funds,” Buggy said.

Money is often the issue. But a Justice Department flyer notes there are limited tax incentives for ADA compliance. The Internal Revenue Code Section 44 describes a tax credit for eligible small businesses of up to $5,000 for barrier removal and/or accessibility services such as sign language interpreters.

Under Section 190, the IRC offers a business deduction of up to $15,000 per year to qualifying businesses of any size. Moreover the flyer points out that a business expands its customer base when it becomes fully accessible.

Full access for all “is achievable,” Hewlitt said, noting that “in the States, it’s routine.”

For more information, visit www.ada.gov or call 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY.)

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