Access Law Activists Decry Legal Setbacks

June 30, 2006

Activists trying to force compliance with the Law for Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities have received setbacks this month from both the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court.

Last week, legislators voted to approve a bill that would give bus companies an additional eight years to comply with the law.

The 1996 equal-access law gave bus companies until 2003 to install wheelchair ramps in all of their buses, and only about 12% currently have them (TT, May 29).

The proposal, which will not become law until it is approved in a second debate, was supported as a pragmatic move by Oscar López, a blind legislator who formed the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE) to champion the rights of people with disabilities.

If passed, the bill would mandate bus companies to immediately replace all 15-year-old buses with new, fully accessible vehicles, and install devices including ramps and sonorous signals on remaining buses by 2014.

After the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT) began fining buses without ramps earlier this month, bus company owners complained that strict enforcement of the equal-access law could cause a catastrophic shortage of public transportation.

They argued that though the law was approved a decade ago, they could not fully comply without specific requirements, which were spelled out only recently.

The new proposal includes technical specifications so companies cannot claim ignorance the next time around, said Emilio Granados, an advisor to López.

“It is a solution that although it is not the best, at least it will guarantee compliance with the law,” Granados said.

The second debate on the bill was scheduled for Wednesday, but the vote was delayed for at least a month after 14 legislators sent the text to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) for review.

Alberto Cabezas, spokesman for the Foundation for the Progress of Blind People, said the foundation considers the proposal unconstitutional.

Earlier this month, the foundation lost a bid to force compliance with the equal access law when the Sala IV rejected lawsuits it had filed against the National Museum and the Ministry of Energy and Environment (MINAE) alleging a lack of accommodations for people with disabilities.

The Court rejected both lawsuits in their entirety June 13. The reasons for the decision are not yet available because the cases have not yet been published, said Sonia Villegas, a spokeswoman for Sala IV.

When the foundation filed the suits earlier this month, National Museum and MINAE officials acknowledged that their institutions have not completely complied with the law, but said they are already working toward adding needed amenities.

 

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