Disabled Group Protests at Dillards

Disabled Group Protests at Dillards

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MURRAY, Utah (AP) -- On what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, a group of disabled people held a rally at a Dillard's department story to protest narrow aisles and a lack of cash register counters low enough for wheelchair access.

The protest, organized Friday by the Disabled Rights Action Committee and ADAPT/Utah, was cut short when security officials at the suburban Fashion Place Mall deemed the rally a violation of mall rules and police showed up to disband the activists.

Barbara Toomer, secretary of DRAC's board, said she and her group stayed until after noon, when Murray police officers threatened to cite them for trespassing. The protesters eventually left voluntarily, and no one was cited.

Susan Kirtz, the retail and marketing manager of the mall about 10 miles south of Salt Lake City, said the protesters were welcome, but weren't allowed to hand out fliers or loiter in front of the store.

Rules posted by the mall's doors prohibit "loitering, standing or walking in a manner which interferes or is likely to interfere with others." It also prohibits solicitation or leafleting.

Before the rally was dispersed, about 10 people, most of them in wheelchairs, carried signs reading, "We want to shop;" "Move the racks;" "ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act) now!! No lame excuses;" and "Needed: 36-inch aisles."

The Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1990.

At issue in the protest, as well as in a lawsuit DRAC filed in July, is accessibility for shoppers in wheelchairs. The ADA requires "a public accommodation" to allow a 36-inch access through aisles. It also requires department stores to have available cash register counters no higher than 36 inches.

The lawsuit names 113 stores in four Salt Lake-area malls as defendants, along with Fashion Place and Valley Fair malls. Dillard's is not named in the suit.

Toomer didn't enter the store Friday, but she said she visited Meier & Frank, another mall department store, and found a lowered counter there.

"It can be done, it just wasn't done" at Dillard's, she said.

Doris J. King, a Murray resident, DRAC member and a participant in Friday's rally, said she needs access at Fashion Place stores because they are the closest, most convenient places for her to shop.

"Everyone comes shopping with their family" the day after Thanksgiving, King said. "We can't shop with our families."

King, who has used a wheelchair since a stroke 10 years ago, said she has had some embarrassing shopping moments, including a time when she knocked over a display. "I hollered and hollered," she said, and finally, some customers helped her pick up the mess.

Toomer said Friday's event was worthwhile. She said the group "just had a really educational time teaching people what the issues were."

Peter Staniewicz, a DRAC member who uses a wheelchair, said the holiday shopping season serves as a sharp reminder of the difficulties some have at crowded department stores.

Toomer, who with DRAC has for many years organized such direct-action protests on behalf of disabled people, said the possibility of future rallies is up to her lawyer, who will decide if it's worth the risk.

Because of the pending litigation, Kirtz would not comment on the question of accessibility. Jim Benson, director of advertising at Dillard's Phoenix headquarters, said because he is unfamiliar with specifics at the Murray store, he could not comment. Other Dillard's representatives directed all questions to Benson.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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