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April 30, 2004

Fairness summit falls short

From: Topeka Capital Journal, KS - Apr 30, 2004

Disabled attendees lacked access; meeting put off

By Tim Carpenter
The Capital-Journal

The Topeka Human Relations Commission didn't see or hear it coming.

The commission's staff, which investigates discrimination complaints in the city, had to shut down its own fair-housing summit Thursday because disabilities of blind and deaf participants couldn't be accommodated by organizers.

"Of all people, they should know their stuff," said Chrissie Fraham, a Topekan who is blind.

Robert Bugg, interim director of the commission, responded to protests by conference attendees by postponing "Keepers of the Dream Fair Housing Summit 2004" at the Ramada Inn Downtown, 420 S.E. 6th.

"It's an oversight on our part," he said. "We were so anxious to get all of this together but probably one of the most important groups that is discriminated against on a daily basis we overlooked."

Disabled people voiced objections as soon as the summit was convened. They said invitations to the summit didn't include a statement urging attendees to request special accommodations, leaving the impression organizers were ready to make the meeting fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bugg pulled the plug because he couldn't get a sign-language interpreter or provide program materials in Braille on short notice. He said later that ADA didn't require the city to make special accommodations at a meeting unless notified in advance.

His opening remarks at the summit would have touched on the community's tendency to neglect needs of people with disabilities.

"I didn't get a chance to do that," Bugg said. "It makes it even worse because we are one of the enforcement-type agencies that say, 'You can't do that.' "

Mayor James McClinton said a date for resumption of the summit would be announced in several days. He said in a statement that postponement of the summit demonstrated the city's "commitment to equal accessibility for all people."

Planners addressed wheelchair access but not issues tied to vision and hearing impairment, said Velma Gooding, president of Synergy Public Relations and Advertising. Her Topeka firm helped the commission with publicity.

"This has been a good learning experience for us," Gooding said.

Carolyn Hans, a Topeka resident who is deaf, said she complained last year about the commission's failure to make meetings ADA compliant.

"They always say the same thing: 'We'll do better next year,' " she said.

Suzanne Christmas, a Topeka resident who uses a wheelchair, said Bugg made the correct decision to delay the summit. Housing discrimination is an important topic that deserves attention, she said.

"There is not enough accessible, affordable housing in Topeka," she said.

Tim Carpenter can be reached at (785) 295-1158 or

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