Push for el­e­va­tor in­ten­si­fies after vet­eran’s fa­tal fall

Amer­i­can Le­gion post is one of many sites lack­ing mod­ern ac­ces­si­bil­ity

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Her­beck

Buf­falo city of­fi­cials hope to in­stall an el­e­va­tor at Amer­i­can Le­gion Post 721, but it’ll be months too late to save Korean War vet­eran Nor­man Racki.

For years, older mem­bers of the post have com­plained about the 10 fairly steep stairs lead­ing from an out­side en­trance to the down­stairs bar area of the post, where vet­er­ans who sur­vived World War II, Korea, Viet­nam or other con­flicts gather to laugh, watch sports on TV and en­joy a few beers.

Racki, 87, made it up to the top of those stairs on his way out of the city-owned build­ing last Oct. 6. But he lost his bal­ance and tum­bled back­wards, smack­ing his head on the way down. He died of a brain in­jury a week later in Erie County Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

“He was a very nice man, and it was a shame that his life ended that way,” said Re­nee Ovitt, who lived next door to Racki in the Val­ley neigh­bor­hood, ad­ja­cent to Buf­falo’s First Ward. “I’ve been to the post, and I al­ways no­ticed that those stairs are dan­ger­ous. In fact, I’m sur­prised there aren’t ac­ci­dents there more of­ten.”

Post lead­ers and city of Buf­falo of­fi­cials are now plan­ning for the con­struc­tion of an el­e­va­tor that will make the build­ing on Cazen­ovia Street com­pat­i­ble with the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act and make it eas­ier for vet­er­ans – in­clud­ing some mem­bers in the 70s, 80s and 90s – to en­joy the fa­cil­i­ties.

City of­fi­cials told The Buf­falo News on Thurs­day they are hope­ful that work on the im­prove­ments will be­gin by the end of this year.

Post 721 is be­lieved to be one of many vet­er­ans posts in the Buf­falo area that are not prop­erly ac­ces­si­ble un­der the fed­eral law, ac­cord­ing to Erie County Clerk Michael “Mickey” Kearns.

“These are old build­ings, but im­por­tant build­ings,” Kearns said. “They pro­vide a place for our vet­er­ans to get to­gether and en­joy them­selves. There are old and steep stairs in a lot of these build­ings.”

Over the past three years – go­ing back to his days as a state assem­bly­man – Kearns has spear­headed an ef­fort to try to help vet­er­ans posts in Erie County ob­tain state fund­ing for el­e­va­tors or other physi-

cal im­prove­ments to make the build­ings safer or ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple with phys­i­cal hand­i­caps. But no state grants have been awarded.

Kearns and some vol­un­teers from the Bar­clay Damon law firm helped lo­cal vet­er­ans set up a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called Vet­er­ans Post Restora­tion of Erie County. Eigh­teen vet­er­ans posts – in­clud­ing Post 721 – joined the or­ga­ni­za­tion, whose pur­pose is to raise money or ob­tain grants to fund needed im­prove­ments at post build­ings.

The Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, com­monly known as the ADA, is a fed­eral civil rights law that went into ef­fect in 1990.

The law makes it illegal to dis­crim­i­nate against peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties by bar­ring them from ac­cess to “all pub­lic and pri­vate places that are open to the gen­eral pub­lic,” ac­cord­ing to the ADA National Net­work.

The ADA re­quires mul­ti­story build­ings to have el­e­va­tors or plat­form lifts to en­able in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties, in­clud­ing peo­ple who use walk­ers or wheel­chairs, to read­ily move from floor to floor without us­ing stairs.

“Stairs are never ADA-com­pli­ant,” said Jennifer Perry, an ac­cess spe­cial­ist with the In­sti­tute on Em­ploy­ment and Dis­abil­ity at Cor­nell Univer­sity.

The U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­forc­ing the ac­cess law, but build­ings are not proac­tively in­spected to see if they com­ply with the ADA, Perry said.

“It is a com­plaint-driven process,” Perry told The News. “Build­ings are in­ves­ti­gated if there is a com­plaint made to the Jus­tice Depart­ment or a law­suit filed in fed­eral court.”

Build­ing codes since 1992 have re­quired new structures to be built in ad­her­ence to the ADA, she said, but there is no such thing as an old build­ing be­ing “grand­fa­thered in” be­cause of its age and not be­ing sub­ject to ADA reg­u­la­tions.

At the same time, the ADA only re­quires the owner of an older build­ing to make im­prove­ments – such as adding an el­e­va­tor – if the im­prove­ment is “read­ily achiev­able,” both phys­i­cally and fi­nan­cially, Perry said.

“Some build­ings may not be able to be made ac­ces­si­ble be­cause of their de­sign or the ex­pense in­volved,” Perry said. If there is a dis­pute about what im­prove­ments are “read­ily achiev­able,” that be­comes a mat­ter for the Jus­tice Depart­ment or the courts.

Ac­cord­ing to James Oliv­eri, house chair­man of Post 721, the build­ing near Cazen­ovia Park is more than 100 years old. For decades, it served as the home for the Caz Park su­per­in­ten­dent.

The Amer­i­can Le­gion took over the build­ing in the early 1930s and rents it from the city for $1 a year, Oliv­eri said. The post cur­rently has about 470 mem­bers, in­clud­ing about 20 whose ser­vice dates back to World War II in the 1940s.

The stair­way makes it im­pos­si­ble for some of the post’s older mem­bers to at­tend func­tions, said James Lieb­ner, a for­mer post com­man­der who now serves as its fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer.

“I fell down the stairs my­self five or six years ago … tore up my Achilles ten­don,” Lieb­ner said.

He said lead­ers of the post have been try­ing for “at least 10 years” to get fund­ing for an el­e­va­tor and other ac­ces­si­bil­ity im­prove­ments. He said the post was al­ready work­ing on the prob­lem with Kearns, city of­fi­cials and the Vet­er­ans Post Restora­tion group when Racki fell and died.

“I was there that day, and it was hor­ri­ble,” said Oliv­eri. “Ev­ery­one here loved Norm. Los­ing him was like los­ing part of the fam­ily.”

“There’s no ex­cuse for what hap­pened to Norm that day,” said Tom Whe­lan, 77, a re­tired Erie County sher­iff’s deputy and a close friend of Racki’s. “This sit­u­a­tion with the stairs should have been fixed years ago. A lot of the older guys have been com­plain­ing about it for years. It isn’t safe.”

Whe­lan said he con­tacted The News about the sit­u­a­tion be­cause he was wor­ried that an­other el­derly vet­eran could be hurt at the post.

“It would be ter­ri­ble” if an­other ac­ci­dent oc­curred be­fore the planned el­e­va­tor is in­stalled, Whe­lan said.

Both Oliv­eri and Lieb­ner said they un­der­stood Whe­lan’s frus­tra­tion, but the men also said they have been try­ing for years to get the prob­lem fixed.

“Ef­forts have been made. The prob­lem was not ig­nored,” Oliv­eri said. “We run this post on a shoe­string . ... We’ve never had $250,000 ly­ing around to build an el­e­va­tor.”

A spokesman for Mayor By­ron Brown said the city is seek­ing a grant from the state for an el­e­va­tor.

The ef­fort never made any head­way un­til Kearns got in­volved and agreed to pur­sue funds from the state Dor­mi­tory Au­thor­ity for the im­prove­ments, Oliv­eri said.

He said South Coun­cil Mem­ber Christo­pher P. Scan­lon has also been help­ful. Mem­bers of the Buf­falo chap­ter of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects have vol­un­teered to eval­u­ate posts through­out the county and ad­vise them on what im­prove­ments are needed.

Ac­cord­ing to Kearns, restau­rant owner Rus­sell Sal­va­tore, an avid sup­porter of vet­er­ans’ causes, do­nated $50,000 to the fund last year to help an­other post – in Sloan – im­prove ac­cess for dis­abled vet­er­ans.

Ovitt, 53, said she was a tod­dler when she met Racki. She said she was heart­bro­ken to learn of his death.

“My grand­mother and Norm’s mother were sis­ters. Norm mostly kept to him­self. He lived in the same house in the Val­ley his en­tire life. He was a very re­li­gious man who reg­u­larly went to church and loved go­ing to that post, twice a week,” Ovitt said.

Oliv­eri said he is anx­ious to learn when state fund­ing comes through for Post 721.

“Once that hap­pens, we’d like to get it done as soon as pos­si­ble,” Oliv­eri said. “This has been a long time com­ing.”

In as­so­ci­a­tion with the ADA National Net­work, Cor­nell op­er­ates a toll-free in­for­ma­tion line for any­one who has ques­tions about the ADA and how it is ap­plied. The num­ber is (800) 949-4232.

Nor­man Racki made it to the top of the stairs be­fore tum­bling back­ward last year.

Sharon Can­til­lon/Buf­falo News

Jim Oliv­eri, house chair­man for South Buf­falo Amer­i­can Le­gion Post 721, goes down the stairs where Nor­man Racki, 87, fell last Oc­to­ber.

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