Squaw Valley Is Test Case for Disabilities Act

A wheelchair skier challenges the famous mountain resort for limiting access to its cable car and other facilities

AFTER a seven-year drought, several major snowstorms hit the Squaw Valley ski area last winter. But an even bigger storm is brewing over charges that the resort violates federal law by denying accessibility to disabled people.

Located at scenic Lake Tahoe in northern California, Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, and it has become a popular year-round vacation area for skiers and hikers from around the world.

But Judy Leiken, a computer-software engineer, maintains that she and other disabled people can't use the facility. She filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Squaw Valley management violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Squaw Valley chairman and founder Alex Cushing acknowledges that his upper-mountain facilities are inaccessible to wheelchair users - and are kept that way intentionally.

"We do not allow disabled people in the cable car," Mr. Cushing says. "If we had an accident, there's no safe way of evacuating someone in a wheelchair."

Ms. Leiken calls that a "bogus argument." Squaw Valley has no policy against children, the elderly, or people with canes riding the cable car, she says, all of whom could be difficult to evacuate if the cable car stopped.

"If you take this argument to its extreme," Leiken says, "I shouldn't be allowed to go into any high-rise building" because of potential fires or earthquakes.

The Squaw Valley case is among a growing number of complaints nationwide that major corporations are not complying with the law. While some companies have voluntarily made their facilities accessible to the disabled, many more have not, according to disability-rights experts.

"A lot of businesses aren't complying" with the ADA, says Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney with the Disability Rights and Educational Defense Fund (DREDF) in Berkeley, Calif. "There's a `Let's see if anyone sues us' attitude."

The ADA, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, requires public and private entities to make their facilities accessible to anyone with a disability. It requires changes that, in the words of the statute, are "readily achievable" and do not cause "undue hardship."

Because the courts have not yet interpreted those terms, some companies are doing nothing to comply with the law, according to Jim Bostrom, project manager at Barrier Free Environments in Raleigh, N.C.

"There are probably two different camps of companies," he says. "When the ADA was first announced, some companies had people on staff who took proactive stands."

Mr. Bostrom cites the Hyatt Hotels as being "pretty smart." As an ADA consultant, he helped the hotel chain develop "a plan to remove barriers - and some [changes] are expensive." But Hyatt's decision to become completely accessible by 1996 also opens up a whole new market of customers, he says.

Curb cuts in sidewalks and grab bars in bathrooms help not only the disabled, he says. "The reality is, we're not all 28 and perfectly healthy," Bostrom says. Older people use those facilities as well. "Hyatt wants to keep their loyalty."

Bostrom notes that many other companies, however, are putting off making their facilities accessible. They say, "The economy's bad so we're not going to do anything until we see what the courts require us to do," Bostrom explains.

Disabled skier Leiken and her attorney, Paul Rein, maintain that Squaw Valley management falls into that category. "This is the most blatant case I've heard of in the entire country," Mr. Rein says, "and I've been doing this for 15 years."

California passed a law in 1968 with provisions similar to the federal ADA. Local authorities granted Squaw Valley management's request for a variance from compliance based on the safety argument. But disabled skiing, and the disabled-rights movement, have progressed greatly since that time.

Leiken was disabled by multiple sclerosis in 1981, and she uses either a wheelchair or crutches. She learned to ski two years ago at Alpine Meadows, a ski resort adjacent to Squaw Valley that is headquarters for the Tahoe Handicapped Ski School.

At Alpine, Leiken dismounts her wheelchair and climbs onto a bi-ski with a low seat welded on. She uses two short poles to propel herself on flat surfaces and for balance. She gets onto the chairlift with the help of a Handicapped Ski School assistant, but at the top of the hill, she dismounts by herself. She skis down the hill unassisted.

Like many other skiing novices, she got involved because "it looked like fun and I wanted to go with some friends." So when those friends suggested a side trip to Squaw Valley, with its magnificent view of Lake Tahoe and its High Camp restaurant, Leiken enthusiastically agreed.

She found Squaw Valley's facilities to be quite different from Alpine Meadow's, however. Leiken saw no handicapped parking zones and no curb cuts for her motorized three-wheel wheelchair. A friend had to find some Squaw Valley workers to help lift the heavy scooter and then get her onto the cable car.

The lack of facilities and long delay incensed Leiken. "I was angry, frustrated, and demeaned," she says.

Once up at High Camp, a lodge area part way up Squaw's 8,000-foot mountain, she encountered stairs at every turn. When she had to use the bathroom, she found no grab bars or widened stalls.

Squaw Valley owner Cushing offers a simple explanation for the lack of accessibility: The upper-mountain lodges were never intended to accommodate disabled persons. "Somehow, unbeknownst to us, the lady got on the cable car," he says, "I don't know how she got on. It's against company policy."

Cushing says his only concern is the safety of skiers and rescue crews. During a 1978 blizzard, rescuers lowered skiers from the cable car; they then had to ski down the mountain. Cushing maintains that "a guy in a wheelchair presumably can't ski."

"We're very sympathetic to handicapped people," Cushing says. "We were the first to introduce blind skiing." He also says he hires handicapped workers at the resort.

When asked about the lack of curb cuts, handicapped parking zones, or grab bars - even at the base of the mountain - Cushing says, "We're not sure what the law requires. We've been converting our buildings."

The ADA makes a distinction between facilities that were built before compliance dates of the law and those built or remodeled after Jan. 1, 1992. The law gives property owners latitude to gradually improve accessibility at existing sites, says Ms. Mayerson, the DREDF lawyer. But new construction requires immediate compliance.

Accessibility "doesn't really cost more if built in at the design stage," she says.

While Squaw Valley's base lodge was built many years ago, the resort built new facilities and renovated part of the High Camp facility recently. Attorney Rein maintains that all the new construction should have met ADA standards.

Mayerson notes that a jury recently reacted negatively when owners remodeled a Berkeley, Calif., restaurant but failed to comply with the ADA. The owners spent a lot of money on decor but didn't install even an access ramp, she says. The jurors awarded the disabled patron $500,000 in that case, according to Mayerson, because they didn't think "that was a good way to set priorities."

Other corporations should take heed, Mayerson says. "They have to get on top of this now."

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