A lift for justice, disabled at court

Sunday January 2, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Covered in plastic, the shaft for the new elevator on the west side of the historic Berkshire County Courthouse resembles a giant Christmas present. To a segment of the Berkshire population, that new elevator is a gift. But it's a present that took over a decade to arrive.

Ten years after advocates for the physically disabled held the first of two courthouse protests calling for improved accessibility for the handicapped to the 140-year-old building that houses the Berkshire Superior Court, the $2.9 million state project to achieve that goal is almost finished.

"It's basically 75 to 80 percent complete at this point," said Kevin Flanagan, a spokesman for the state Division of Capital and Asset Management, which is overseeing the project. David J. Tierney Jr. of Pittsfield, is the local contractor. "It's scheduled to be completed in the spring."

The project also includes moving the building's main entrance from East Street to Wendell Avenue so it's more easily accessible for those with disabilities, the lowering of transaction counters inside the building, the addition of a handicapped accessible bathroom, and roof, drainage and parking improvements, Flanagan said. Improvements to the adjacent Central Berkshire District Court building are part of the initiative.

But, the new elevator is the most visible sign of the project, which began last May.

The elevator shaft, the piece that is covered in plastic, has already been installed. The actual elevator car, and the mechanics that are needed to operate it, could arrive in Pittsfield as early as today, according to Mike D'Scania, the facilities manager for the county courthouse complex.

Although it is unclear when the new elevator will officially open, "the scaffolding will come down any day now," D'Scania said.

Merle Farber is pleased.

Physically disabled following a severe car accident in 1983, the Pittsfield resident was one of the organizers of the two courthouse protests in 2000 and 2002.

"I feel great about what they're doing," Ferber said, referring to the courthouse improvement project. "I feel best about the comfort level. You can go in there in a wheelchair now."

In 1999, Ferber filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against both the state and the former Berkshire County Commission after she was turned down for jury duty because the building was not yet compliant with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities, including the courts, at the local and state level.

The first protest took place the day before the state officially took ownership of the courthouse building from the County Commission, which went out of business when county government was officially dissolved. The protest was also held then to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the ADA's passage. The second courthouse protest occurred the day after Flag Day in 2002.

Ferber said the events were held "not out of anger. It was definitely out of frustration."

They were educational events, Farber said, designed to inform not inflame the public to the courthouse's lack of accessibility.

"I have to say that I believed the system was going to do the right thing," Ferber said. "I put a lot of work into it. There was a lot of follow-up and conversations, and I believed they would do the right thing. I never felt they wouldn't. But I felt [the community] needed a reality check which we gave them."

The county courthouse already has an elevator, but it doesn't go all the way down to the basement. It also wasn't large enough to accommodate some of the new motorized wheelchairs. The new elevator, which will be located on the outside of the building, is accessible from every floor of the courthouse.

"The main reason for the new elevator is the other one is too small for the emergency guidelines," Flanagan said. "And it's too old to be prepared to fit all the floors in the building."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
(413) 496-6224


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