Summers County, West Virginia
A small county, with limited resources, takes steps
to make a historic courthouse and other programs and services accessible.
Joseph Bragg, a Korean War Veteran and lifelong West Virginia resident, will never again face possible injury and the indignity of being carried up the stairs in his wheelchair to participate in Summers County Court proceedings. Bragg recalls the event vividly. I had to go to court over some property I owned, and the courtroom is on the second floor. A deputy and another man had to carry me up two flights of stairs because the old courthouse has no elevator. I didnt even ask to be carried down at lunch. Afterwards, I really needed to get to the restroom. Once I was carried back down to the first floor, my son rushed me down the hall to the men's room but I couldnt even get my wheelchair through the door. I was so mad that I filed my complaint with the Department of Justice.
Hinton, West Virginia, the seat of Summers County, is a once-thriving, 140-year-old railroad town. The County Courthouse and the downtown historic district are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, so finding ways to provide access while still preserving the rich heritage of the area was important to the county and all its residents. With limited available resources, the county faced what seemed to be an unsolvable dilemma. Lonnie Mullins, Summers County Commissioner, said the challenge of making historic buildings accessible, coupled with the lack of available funding, makes the County appear to work very slowly. It's quite a task. But we've found the Justice Department very cooperative and understanding of our position. They acknowledged the problems in having an older, historic building. But it's important that all members of society have access to programs, services, and facilities. No question about it. We're taking steps to make that happen -- we're still committed to accessibility.
And Summers County is doing just that making it happen. The county has agreed to make many changes throughout the county, providing access to the courthouse and several key county buildings over a 36-month period. The county has already made many of those changes, resulting in increased access for all citizens, including those with disabilities. The courthouse now has accessible parking and a curb ramp, which now makes it possible for someone using a wheelchair to get to the new ramped accessible entrance and into the building. The county has also installed accessible restrooms and placed directional signage where needed. Other changes in the works include installing lowered, accessible service counters to allow individuals to pay their taxes and carry out other business with the County's Sheriff, Tax Assessor, and County Clerk offices. Changes to the courtroom will include accessible spectator seating and the jury and witness boxes. The county will also remove barriers for individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or blind by installing an assistive listening device in the courtroom, audible and visual emergency alarms, and Braille and raised letter signage throughout the building.
Providing access to the second floor of the courthouse was a big challenge. In addition, the county wanted to find a way to provide access to the upper floors of the nearby Memorial Building, which houses the Magistrate Court and other offices, an auditorium, and a lower level multipurpose room. Summers County found an innovative solution that illustrates its commitment to provide full and inclusive participation to all the county's citizens: within the next three years, Summers County will construct an elevator between the courthouse and Memorial Building, linking these two main county buildings and providing access to all floors of both buildings, including the second floor courtroom. In the meantime, until the elevator is installed, the county will relocate proceedings held in the Summers County Courthouse to an accessible location whenever requested by an individual who cannot get to the second floor courtroom because of a disability.
Also within this 36-month period, the county has agreed to remove barriers to access in specific courthouse and Memorial Building rooms, as well as in several other county buildings and programs, including the Health Department and the county's 4-H Camp.
For Joseph Bragg, the changes that have already been made and those that will be made in the near future by the county are a big step in the right direction. Trying out the new ramp to the courthouse entrance, Bragg said ... it looks nice...nice and wide. This is a big improvement. I wish this had been there that time I came and had to be carried up the stairs. This is a big jump from where it was before. I wanted to come pay taxes in person to the clerks, but I couldnt before. Now I feel good...great really, when I look around at the changes made here.