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Games access poses big hurdles

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Slush, snow and salt — these are some of the special challenges of making the 2002 Winter Olympics compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Olympics are a public event, and that means that every venue, even if it's on a snowpacked hillside, must be accessible to all spectators and athletes, regardless of their disabilities. That's what makes Olympic Games held on U.S. soil different from those held in, say, Japan.

Katherine Sheehan, ADA coordinator for Salt Lake City, attended the Paralympic Games in Nagano in 1998. "The athletes were taken up the hill in fancy Snowcats. But the spectators were pretty much on their own," she says.

Sheehan is just one of the disability advocates who sit on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's panel on access, which meets regularly to make sure both the Olympics and Paralympics comply with the American Disabilities Act — and to figure out "what would be nice to have beyond compliance," says Sheehan. This is the first Winter Games to be held in the United States since the passage of the ADA 10 years ago.

The ADA requires that a certain percentage of parking spaces be designated "handicapped" and that a certain percentage of seats at a venue be set aside for wheelchairs. But there are other, more subtle, considerations too, says Bill Shaw, who coordinates ADA compliance for SLOC.

That's why SLOC took the access committee up to the Winter Sports Park earlier this summer and will make field trips to Snowbasin, Soldier Hollow and the Olympic Village. "We're depending on these people to let us know the nuances," says Shaw.

At the Atlanta Games, for example, there was a place for wheelchair spectators to unload, "but the asphalt was so hot the chairs got covered with tar," says Shaw. Utah in February brings a different set of concerns, including ice and slush.

"One of the worst things for a chair is going through slush," says Shaw. "The wheels bring it up to the chair, and then they're soaking wet." And the salt used to keep pathways thawed out can be a problem for the visually impaired who use canes.

At the Winter Sports Park, the parking lot — even the close-in handicapped spots — are a mile and a half from the ski jump and even farther from the bobsled run. SLOC is looking into the possibility of providing vans to transport disabled spectators to the venues.

To accommodate hearing-impaired spectators, SLOC is looking into the possibility of closed-caption video and sign language interpreters.

As with everything on the accessibility wish-list, notes Shaw, "we have to be mindful of the budget."

SLOC is working with Turner Madden, a Washington, D.C., attorney who advises the National Football League on ADA matters. SLOC's local committee on access includes members like Mike Schlappi, a wheelchair athlete who will compete in the Summer Paralympics in Sydney this fall, and Pat Gann, who is blind.

"They forgot the blind when they did the ADA," says Gann. Signs in Braille aren't really enough, she says, since only about 10 percent of blind people in the United States read Braille. The best-case scenario, says Gann, would be the kind of "description" found on some videos — a narrator who explains what's happening.

"It's not required by the ADA, but it would make (the Games) accessible to the blind," she says.

Gann finds it encouraging that SLOC is in charge of both the Olympics and the Paralympics (a first) and that SLOC will be using disabled volunteers.

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com