The aftermath of Katrina brought a large wave of new construction to South Mississippi. Now there's a new effort to make sure people with disabilities aren't left out of that recovery process. The Department of Justice has hired an accessibility advisor for Harrison County and its cities to help make better, more inclusive design choices.
When Christine Woodell visits the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, she knows she can get in through the automatic outside doors, and up to the second floor using the elevator. But what Woodell says she can't do is use the bathroom. She showed us how her wheelchair doesn't fit in the stall.
"If you can't stand, you can't use this bathroom," she said. "I'm not able to use any bathroom I've located in the courthouse."
The Harrison County administrator later told WLOX News that the bathrooms on the north and south end of the courthouse do meet ADA regulations.
County building officials say new public buildings, like D'Iberville High School, will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, there are claims that some of the area's other new construction may not be ADA compatible.
Accessibility consultant Bill Hecker said, "In my experience, the largest problem or concern is not to the will and the desire to be inclusive and comply with the accessibility provisions of the building codes and federal laws, but rather not knowing where to go to find the information necessary to comply fully with those laws."
Since ADA rules also apply to private multi-family housing and business developments, Hecker says educating contractors, architects, and owners will save headaches later.
"It's always better to address issues of accessibility, particularly the problems of accessibility when it is still on paper. Because once you have to tear out concrete and widen doors, it becomes much more expensive. "
Christine Woodell is a member of LIFE, or Living Independence For Everyone. It's an advocacy group that's trying to get the word out to builders about compliance. Now they have some help.
"I think it's given us a fresh start. We can make this community one of the most accessible in the nation, if we're just aware of the requirements."
The new ADA consultant says he is available to meet with architects and contractors needing guidance.