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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

Tami Loving was still recovering from back surgery when she arrived at Meadowbrook High School five years ago to see her son start his first game as a pitcher.

She struggled to get her wheelchair over the curb in the parking lot, then rolled slowly toward the baseball field before realizing the gate was only wide enough to walk through.

"I had to embarrassingly call my ex-husband who was in the stands and have him and another gentleman pick me up and fold the wheelchair up to get me through the gate," Loving recalled.

Because of a complaint filed by Loving, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights this summer ordered Chesterfield County Public Schools to make improvements at nine schools to comply with federal standards for people with disabilities.

Loving said school officials widened the gate at the baseball field soon after she notified them of the problem. But after that humiliating day in March 2009, Loving began to notice more and more barriers near school ballfields that appeared to violate federal accessibilitystandards such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

There were gravel paths that made rolling a wheelchair next to impossible, curbs that had no ramps cut into them, and parking lots that lacked handicap spaces near the fields.

Her subsequent pleas for better access -- to the School Board, county planners, building inspectors, anyone who would listen --were all but ignored by the school system and the county government, she said. So she filed the formal complaint last year.

"I'm like a pingpong ball going around the county now for over three years trying to get somebody to follow the law," Loving told the county Board of Supervisors earlier this year.

That same night, Chesterfield resident Kate Flinn complained to supervisors about the lack of handicap spaces and curb cuts at ballfields as well as the need for more accessibility at public parks and in some schools.

Of the 10 schools Loving identified in her complaint, an investigation by the DOE Office for Civil Rights found problems that must be corrected at nine.

Federal law requires the county's facilities to be "readily accessible" to people with disabilities.

Richmond Public Schools recently completed more than $20 million in remediation work on 44 schools after parents sued the systemfor its accessibility problems.

Chesterfield Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome signed an agreement dated May 30 that requires the school system to have a plan in place by Oct. 1 to correct the issues.

Some of the fields are used mainly by the county's Parks and Recreation Department, which will be required to make about a third of the repairs.

Newsome declined an interview request for this story, but sent a written statement through a schools spokesman.

"The school division is diligently working with Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation to address the agreed-upon resolution for each issue," Newsome said in the statement. "We take very seriously our commitment to provide outdoor school facilities that are accessible to our students, staff and the community."

About half of the repairs havebeen made or are scheduled to be finished by the end of the month, according to a document from the school system. The document estimates the fixes will cost about $70,500.

Chesterfield Parks and Recreation Director Michael Golden said his department is still working with a consultant to determine which repairs it will make and at what cost.

According to the agreement signed by Newsome, the school system must terminate any agreements to let Parks and Recreation use its fields if the repairs are not made.

Some simple changes, such as adding signs or painting new handicap parking spots, havebeen completed, Golden said.

Golden said he is not sure why Loving's requests for better accessibility were not addressed before she filed the complaint.

"Improving access is something we want to do," he said. "Any of these things, there's always a trade-off; there's a cost to that."

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In November, Loving went to Grange Hall Elementary to see her nephew play football.

Loving, who suffers from degenerative bone disease and has metal rods and screws in her back, needs a cane to walk and has been in and out of a wheelchair over the past several years.

Grange Hall is one of the sites the school system has said Parks and Recreation should fix because it is used mostly for its leagues.

The field had new lights, scoreboards and a concession stand with two reserved spaces for employees when Loving arrived last fall. But there were no handicap parking spots and no accessible path to the fields.

Loving's nephew kicked a field goal that day, but she didn't see it. She couldn't get to the field.

"If the county has enough money to put these lights up, they could probably afford a sidewalk to get out there," Loving said.

She said she is grateful that the improvements for which she has advocated will be made. But she hopes the county does not stop there. Since filing her original complaint, Loving's list of schools with ballpark accessibility problems has grown to more than 20.

"I hope they don't restrict themselves to only the ones they're forced to do," she said. "Just because I may be disabled doesn't mean I don't like to go to ballgames."

 August 12, 2014

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