New tour book: Boston's welcome for handicapped

You can get to the observatory atop the 60-story John Hancock Tower in a wheelchair. Then, still seated, you can lower the telescopes to your level and look across to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown.

Which is a good thing, because that may be the best view a disabled person can get of the Revolutionary War monument. Over at the monument itself, the curbs along the street are unmodified. The ramp goes only up to the entrance level. The monument itself has 294 steps.

That's the sort of information packed into a 200-page book titled ''Access to Boston: A Guide for Disabled Persons.'' Considered by professionals in the field to be one of the most comprehensive guidebooks of its kind in the country, it was put together by the Mayor's Commission on the Physically Handicapped and 12 other agencies.

The project began four years ago as a community service project of some students at Boston University (BU). Appropriately, it was published during the International Year of the Disabled - as public attention has turned increasingly toward the problems of those with ambulatory, sight, and hearing disabilities.

But the result, says Alfred H. DeGraff of BU's Disabled Student Services, differs in both conception and scope from other guides around the country.

This guide, he says, ''does not simply label different facilities as accessible or inaccessible, but gives facts and dimensions so people can judge for themselves.''

Nor is it written in technical language understandable only to professionals. ''The entire design of the book was geared for user usability,'' says Len Shubitowski of the Information Center for Individuals with Disabilities, a national organization based in Boston and one of the cooperating agencies that produced the book.

The book covers a variety of sites, including restaurants and night spots, fast foodel3l

shops, hotels, historical sites, museums, and parks. It uses symbols for such things as telephones, restrooms, and parking to indicate which sites meet or exceed the standards established by the state's Architectural Barriers Board.

But it also includes prose descriptions of the sites. Here you can learn, for example, that the China Cinema (showing Chinese films with English subtitles) has an unmodified curb and an eight-inch step at the entrance, but that the Museum of Modern Art has elevators to all galleries and sign-language tours. Here, too, you can discover that the counters at The Union Oyster House are 41 inches high, but that there are telephones with coin slots no more than 54 inches high in Quincy Market.

The guide is organized into 14 different neighborhood areas, each with a detailed map. It also includes sections on short sightseeing trips in and around Boston and on transportation -- telling the reader, for instance, that one of the city's subway systems, the Green Line, is ''considered inaccessible to individuals with mobility impairments.''

And at the back, it lists such things as restaurants with Braille menus, museums with touchable exhibits, and automobile rental agencies offering hand-controlled cars.

How many people will it serve? ''It all depends on what your definition of disability is,'' says Mr. Shubitowski. Some definitions exclude the elderly, or restrict themselves only to those with mobility impairments. Excluding the elderly, he estimates that some 12 or 13 percent of the nation's population is disabled in some way. A study based on the 1970 census set the figure in the Boston area at 130,000.

With tourism flourishing in this historic city, however, the guide is designed for both residents and visitors. Available from BU's Disabled Student Services (single copies free to disabled persons), the book is already in demand. Even before the recently published book received much publicity, BU officials say they had some 800 requests for single copies.

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