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St. Dominic violating federal law by blocking wheelchair users from pedestrian bridge, lawsuit says

When Scott Crawford goes to see his neurologist at St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson, he travels down State Street to Fondren and then rolls his wheelchair along Lakeland Drive. A glass pedestrian bridge suspended above the street connects the parking garage to the hospital – but he can’t access it.  

Instead, he’s forced to steer his wheelchair across eight lanes of high-speed traffic at an intersection with no pedestrian signal.

St. Dominic locks the door that links the garage to the sidewalk, which shuts out Crawford and other patients who don’t drive. He can’t safely access the garage the way people in cars do, because the vehicle entrance consists of a steeply sloping road with no sidewalk. 

Crawford, who has multiple sclerosis, does not drive because he experiences spasms that would make it unsafe for himself and others. 

Hospital employees told him that the door from the sidewalk to the garage must remain locked for “safety reasons.”

St. Dominic is violating federal law including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by forcing non-drivers in wheelchairs to navigate a treacherous path while able-bodied people with cars enjoy easy access to the hospital, claims a lawsuit filed by the organization Disability Rights Mississippi in late July.

Disability Rights, the state’s nonprofit “protection and advocacy system,” charged by Congress with advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, filed the lawsuit after Crawford spent more than a year reaching out to the hospital with his concerns. He created multi-page PDF documents describing his journey step by step, with photographs and citations of the ADA. 

“They cared enough to build the bridge,” he said. “Why not care enough to at least welcome all visitors to it?”

Meredith V. Bailess, senior director of marketing at St. Dominic, said in an email that the hospital’s attorneys had not been aware of the lawsuit before Mississippi Today reached out for comment.

“We are looking into the items raised in the complaint,” she said. 

She added that the hospital could comment further “once we receive and review the formal complaint.”

Polly Tribble, executive director of Disability Rights Mississippi, said St. Dominic had not yet been served with the lawsuit, but that will take place this week. The lawsuit was filed July 28.

If the hospital is concerned about car break-ins, Tribble said, denying access to the pedestrian bridge is not the solution. 

“There’s some easy remedies for that,” she said. ‘They used to have a security guard there that would patrol around the parking garage, that kind of thing. So it’s a safety issue but it’s also just a humane access issue for people that need it.”

Motorists stop at a traffic light at the intersection of North Curran and Lakeland Drives in Jackson, Miss., Friday, August 19, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

A retired clinical neuropsychologist with a PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi, Crawford moved to Jackson in late 2006 to be closer to family. He learned that the city’s JATRAN buses weren’t accessible to people in wheelchairs and filed a lawsuit that forced the city of Jackson to ensure buses were equipped with wheelchair lifts and designate an ADA coordinator in the planning department, among other reforms. 

Crawford is an advocate for pedestrian safety. He’s also a member of the City of Jackson’s Americans with Disabilities Act Advisory Council and a board member of the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities.

So when he first encountered the locked door to the pedestrian bridge in 2014, he knew how to advocate for himself and other wheelchair users and non-drivers. In January of that year, he reached out to Commander Orange Young at the hospital’s security office to explain his concerns. 

“The mantra in the disability community is educate or litigate,” he said. “So I try very, very hard to educate.”

After months of back and forth, he received a letter from hospital risk and safety manager K. Jerry Farr in March 2015. Farr explained that the security department had unlocked the door after Crawford’s initial outreach, but locked it again after “a vehicle break in was recorded and access to the garagae (sic) was traced to that door.” But the hospital was putting a timer on the door to keep it unlocked during the day, Farr said. 

For years after that, Crawford had no problems accessing the pedestrian bridge. 

But in March 2021, he found that the door was locked again. Crawford said one hospital employee said the door was locked because “Homeless people are camping out in the garage.” 

The street-level entrance to St. Dominic’s parking garage in Jackson, Miss. Friday, August 19, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Over the next 14 months, he contacted Commander Orange Young and the hospital’s vice president and general counsel Jonathan Werne to describe his inability to access the pedestrian bridge every time he visited the hospital. 

“As we have previously explained to you, due to safety reasons, the outside access door to the parking garage on the North side of Lakeland Drive has been closed to all individuals,” Werne wrote in May 2022. “The parking garage itself is still open to all visitors. Anyone can access the pedestrian bridge through the parking garage.”

But because he doesn’t drive, Crawford has no way to access the parking garage without rolling down a steep road that has no sidewalks. 

Werne said Crawford could call hospital security to open the door for him when he gets there. Because of his multiple sclerosis, however, Crawford has dysphonia, which makes it painful for him to raise his voice to be heard over the traffic on Lakeland Drive. 

“They think it’s OK for me to just give them a call and then wait for them to come and open the door for me,” Crawford told Mississippi Today. “Well, that’s not what the ADA calls for. ADA calls for independent access.” 

When Mississippi Today visited St. Dominic on a recent weekday morning, the door to the garage from the street was locked, and there was no sign explaining who to call to get inside. 

Two able-bodied reporters made the street crossing Crawford must undertake in his wheelchair; it took 13 seconds and both had to start jogging to get across the street before the light changed. Without a pedestrian crossing sign, it was difficult to tell when it was safe to start crossing. 

Despite the locked door at street level, anyone could get into the parking garage by accessing the pedestrian bridge from the hospital side. A Mississippi Today reporter also found she could use the vehicle entrance to walk inside the parking garage, but the slope was steep and there was little room to avoid passing cars. 

Crawford sees in St. Dominic’s stance not only a lack of regard for the safety of people with disabilities but also a presumption that individuals without cars are likelier to cause trouble. He believes that conflicts with the hospital’s mission to “create a spirit of healing… with humility and justice for all those entrusted to our care.”

“St. Dominic was thoughtful enough to provide a safe route crossing Lakeland, but it is profoundly insensitive to deprive pedestrians access to that safety,” Crawford wrote to St. Dominic officials on Aug. 10, 2021. “Are people that either cannot drive, or simply choose not to, unworthy of the same trust you afford everyone else? In short, opening the pedestrian bridge to those that drive, but *NOT* those who walk or roll is offensive in the extreme, and conduct unbecoming a faith-based institution such as yours.”

Read the lawsuit here:

The post St. Dominic violating federal law by blocking wheelchair users from pedestrian bridge, lawsuit says appeared first on Mississippi Today.

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