Elvira Basnight was fifteen years old when glaucoma closed in on her sight. She left her New York high school, where she was a freshman, to attend a school for the blind. But after a year spent learning how to get around and read braille, she asked to go back to public school.
“It was being back in the mainstream, being back among people like myself, although I was just now blind,” she says. “I needed to be back out there in the world.”
Forty-two years later, Basnight is again asking for the opportunity to participate in the world as any sighted person would, this time from the city of Durham’s Parks and Recreation Department. In September, Basnight filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against Parks and Rec, saying its Mature Adults program is discriminating by not providing a sighted guide for her or allowing her to bring her own guide without that person being charged a registration fee.
In essence, she says she’s being double-charged because of her visual impairment. The city has told her it would make an effort to waive fees for guides, but she argues that, twenty-eight years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city should have a written policy guaranteeing that consideration to anyone with an impairment.
Basnight says in her thirty years in Durham, she has approached Parks and Rec “off and on” about including more activities for people with visual impairments. She’s stepped up that advocacy in the past year as she nears retirement from a career at the Duke ALS Clinic.
The city’s programs specifically for people with visual impairments—VIP programs, as they’re called—don’t suit Basnight’s appetite for exercise or adventure.
“We don’t need to sit down and play bingo and crochet,” she says.
So she looked to the DPR’s Mature Adults program, which is for those fifty-five and up and offers trips to attractions around the state.
Basnight went on two trips with the program—to the Black Mountain Chocolate Factory and a play in Sanford—holding on to the elbow of a Parks and Rec employee. But when she tried to sign up for a third excursion, she was told staffers could no longer guide her.
Parks and Rec spokeswoman Cynthia Booth says the department’s “goal has always been to make DPR programs accessible to all participants,” but it is “unable to foresee the particular needs of each individual requiring a guide” and doesn’t have the staff to provide one. City attorney Patrick Baker says having staffers, “especially if they are not qualified,” act as guides could pose a liability risk.
Basnight says she would prefer a guide be provided—whether that’s a Parks and Rec employee or a volunteer. Participants in the Mature Adults program have to register for trips in advance, and it’s difficult to know who will be available to come along. Besides, Basnight says, she doesn’t know a lot of people who are as active as she is.
Registration for these trips is less than $100. For city residents, current offerings range from $6 to go to the outlet mall in Mebane to $75 for a buffet and a performance of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity. Basnight says her complaint has less to do with cost than principle.
“How are we almost thirty years into the ADA and Durham is just now getting around to including us?” she asks. “We want to educate the city of Durham.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which has prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities since 1990, requires public entities to make “reasonable modifications” so that programs and services are accessible. (Basnight says she doesn’t consider herself disabled, although her vision impairment qualifies her to file complaints under the ADA.)
“The ADA is an important law because it doesn’t just require everyone to be treated equally,” says Jennifer Bills, who teaches disability law at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It does sometimes require public entities or employers to do something affirmative to even the playing field or even out access.”
In deciding if modifications are warranted, Bills explains, courts would look at an entity’s resources and existing programming, then decide whether the modification is reasonable. The ADA doesn’t require any changes that “would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.”
Bills says she can’t give a legal opinion on Basnight’s case, but given how low program costs are, it doesn’t seem like an undue burden for the city to pay for a guide.
“They’re not saying people with visual disabilities can’t participate,” Bills says. “It’s not facially overt, intentional discrimination, but it is having an impact that’s disparate based on the person’s disability.”
While Baker agrees that a “six-dollar fee waiver here or there would seem to be a reasonable accommodation,” he says it may not always be as simple as writing off the city’s fee—for example, if a destination requires its own admission fee. His office has advised Parks and Rec to accommodate fee-waiver requests from anyone with a disability. He also told Basnight the city “would be providing her at a minimum all of the reasonable accommodations that would be required by the ADA, if not more.”
He’s not sure, however, that a policy change is warranted. The ADA already requires the city to make accommodations, and, as far as he knows, Basnight is the only person making this request.
But Basnight says that’s not enough. Instead, she says Parks and Rec needs to change its policies and do more to reach people with visual impairments.
“I’m convinced there are a lot of blind people out there who were turned away and did not pursue it,” she says. “I didn’t walk away.”
Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.