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Woodstock Works on Accessibility

At the Windsor County Courthouse in Woodstock,  Clerk Alison Waters carries paperwork down the stairs earlier this month. It’s one of several buildings in the historic village that offer limited access, at best, for the disabled. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

At the Windsor County Courthouse in Woodstock, Clerk Alison Waters carries paperwork down the stairs earlier this month. It’s one of several buildings in the historic village that offer limited access, at best, for the disabled. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

Woodstock ­— Towns throughout the Upper Valley draw consumers and tourists year-round for outdoor activities, tours, shopping and local restaurant fare.

But many of the communities continue to struggle with the limited access that their historic buildings offer people with disabilities.

This year, some towns in the Upper Valley have begun to focus on modifying older buildings in order to become fully accessible for all residents and visitors.

By working together and sometimes getting creative, Woodstock has been working to meet federal accessibility requirements despite budget and aesthetic challenges.

“We provide access because the law requires it,” said Michael Brands, Woodstock’s town planner and administrative officer.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, it is a federal violation of civil rights to exclude those with disabilities from participation in public programs and activities.

It requires physical barriers in existing places of public accommodation to be removed if “readily achievable,” and alternative methods of providing services must be offered, if those methods are readily achievable, according to a federal summary of the law.

Brands said officials in Woodstock “have had inkling all along” that action needs to be taken.

“Walk downtown and you will see a number of businesses that need work. Some of these historic buildings are 200 years old. Built before the ADA existed.

Last January was when the town recognized we really need to be proactive about this,” Brands said. Woodstock began to take action after 14 complaints and one lawsuit.

States are allowed to exceed the scope of the ADA. While churches are exempt, Vermont enacted its own law emphasizing places of worship must heed to standards of “public accommodation.”

In cases of differing state and federal laws, the more inclusive ones take effect.

These efforts do not go unrecognized. According to “The Case for Inclusion of 2012”, an annual ranking of how well state Medicaid programs serve Americans with disabilities, New Hampshire and Vermont rated numbers 4 and 5.

“We are trying to get educated on it first. Bringing in ADA experts to walk us through it, applying for grants, surveying the real needs to prioritize. Ultimately it is the owner of the building who is responsible to make repairs but this is outside of town meetings and officials. There has been a group that has held strong putting together local meetings and making the community more aware,” Brands said.

State Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock. Sustainable Woodstock Director Sally Miller and Thompson Senior Center Director Deanna Jones have assembled an accessibility task force to work with business owners, the Division of Historic Preservation and the Commission of Human Rights in addressing funding and aesthetic solutions.

“A misconception is that all accommodations are ugly. This is where experienced ADA-wise architects and designers can problem-solve in ways designed to maintain functionality required for access while considering the aesthetic design of the area,” said Louise Russell, a Woodstock resident and former director of the accessible education office at Harvard University, who is also working with the task force.

The Woodstock group is considering running a nationwide competition for architects. It’s a creative challenge to tackle the many dual-level entrance ways and narrow spaces in an old New England village.

“Our challenge is our strength; the historic village but we can’t afford to ignore this issue anymore,” said Clarkson. “A problem clearly stated is a problem clearly solved. We had to find and state the problem and the town has been very receptive.”

Some major improvements have already been taken in town, of course.

In the 1980s, Woodstock added an elevator to the Town Hall, and the Norman Williams Public Library added an entrance ramp more than a decade ago.

Now, Windsor County officials are trying to build voter support for a $2 million upgrade to the courthouse in Woodstock, which would include making it wheelchair friendly. There is no elevator to reach a second-floor courtroom, and steps lead to the front entrance of the building.

Some buildings in town have been creative in how they place the ramps. Some streets have been repaved with additional curb cuts so the blind can feel where the curb ends and people can navigate the streets in a wheel chair. All projects are site specific so that they meet ADA requirements and are not visually overwhelming, Brands said.

Building owners have found ways to provide some access with portable ramps and allowing access from other entrance ways in order to provide minimum access. However, accessibility to these locations depends on the knowledge they exist.

In August, a new crowd-sourcing web site AXSmap.com debuted at the Digital Media Festival on the Woodstock Green to help raise awareness within the Woodstock community. AXSmap.com is a free online and mobile app that allows users to share accessible locations as well as review through a rating system. Clarkson teamed up with Russell to survey the buildings of Woodstock.

“The app has helped in rating us as an accessible town. This is the first time they came to a small town like Woodstock. Those things are ingenious to help people locate where they can get in and out,” Brands said. “We are working on this and trying to make it an easier stay. When you get an informal survey like that it helps people.”

Members of the task force are trying to raise more awareness about the need for improvements in accessibility.

“Often people assume that ‘old’ buildings equal ‘historic’, and that they automatically qualify for ADA exemptions, which is not necessarily true,” said Russell. “State architects and other officials know how to help local officials and merchants determine what is reasonable. A challenge faced by some businesses is that spaces they occupy are owned by others, some of whom don’t live in the area.”

With Vermont home to an aging population, the issue is growing in importance, and other towns have also taken action.

The city of Vergennes, Vt., for example, recently raised the sidewalks to meet the entrances to buildings for access.

“Accessibility doesn’t happen over night. While people may be empathetic to the ‘cause,’ it often takes a personal experience with a visual or unseen loss of function — a broken hip, stroke, breathing problems, loss of vision or hearing — to  limit one’s ability to  go to a restaurant, participate in a town meeting,  shop, travel, read,” Russell said. “(But) Whether temporary or permanent lifestyle changes, they needn’t create lack of participation or isolation.”