Making buildings accessible benefits all

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Jeanne Sparks was published in the Santa Maria Times on August 13, 2015:

On July 24, the panoramic views from the observation deck of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse clock tower became accessible to all. For the first time, the elevator reached the top, following a seven-month tower renovation project.

Previously, the elevator stopped one floor below the deck, allowing access only to those who could handle the steep stairs.

Santa Maria resident Barry Stotts played a major role in making the courthouse more accessible. In the early 1990s, county Supervisor Tom Rogers — now deceased — initiated the effort to get the elevator extended to the observation deck. Stotts was, and is, an advocate for people with mobility and visual impairments. The board listened to his suggestions about courthouse accessibility and developed improved access.

Stotts is legally blind. He began losing his vision when he was in high school and can now only see light or dark, but that hasn’t stopped him. He began advocating for better access when he was in his 30s. He turns 74 next month and continues his advocacy work.

In the 1970s, the Department of Rehabilitation recruited Stotts to be an advocate. They trained him and other volunteers to come back to their local communities to teach others about the rules and regulations of Title 24 Building Codes to create accessibility.

He and others in the 1970s urged the city of Santa Maria to create a public transportation system. The City Council was against it. He took the issue to the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments and to the state Attorney General. Eventually the city contracted with Santa Maria Organization Of Transportation Helpers (SMOOTH) to make the first fully accessible door-to-door bus route in the state, which led to the creation of the Santa Maria Area Transit system.

Since then, Stotts’ advocacy has helped get city parks facilities made accessible including restrooms, parking, doors and outdoor amenities. He was also consulted for Santa Maria’s new public library and transit center. He has spearheaded other changes in the county while serving on the Affirmative Action Commission, including getting automatic doors on many county buildings, changes at the County Bowl for accessible seating and a greater ratio of women’s restrooms to men’s, and other projects.

Stotts was also a volunteer with State Parks where he advocated for accessibility, including consultations on the Oso Flaco footbridge and on Hearst Castle. He served on the U.S. Forest Service’s A Team — A for Access — advocating for accessible campsites, restrooms and trails. He continues to serve on the city of Santa Maria’s Door-to-Door Bus System Appeals Committee and its building appeals board. He is on the county Hiking and Riding Trails Committee.

Stotts has accomplished a lot, but there’s still more to do. Even changing attitudes is important. Most people writing in response to news reports on the courthouse renovation project were overwhelmingly in favor of it. However, I did see one person who thought too much money was spent to benefit too few people. He doesn’t see the whole picture.

As Stotts puts it, everybody is a TAB — temporarily able bodied. Everybody gets a physical ailment at some time, or they get older and less able to do what they once did. Some people have heart conditions or bad knees. Many families have children in strollers or parents who aren’t able to go up stairs.

Making a place accessible helps families do things together. When the opportunity arises to make a place more accessible, support it. It benefits everyone.

Jeanne Sparks is the associate director for Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward provides a progressive viewpoint on local issues.