Lewis Breaks Architectural Barriers to Handicapped

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There were no laws requiring accessibility for handicapped persons to Oklahoma City buildings back in 1970 when George Lewis was appointed to the Mayor's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

"An Oklahoma law said new state buildings should be accessible, but it wasn't enforced," said Lewis, an architect for HTB Inc. of Oklahoma City.

"I didn't know much about it at first, but the more I found out, the more I became interested." That interest turned into a one-man crusade by Lewis over the last 21 years to remove architectural barriers to the handicapped in Oklahoma City.

In his quiet way without pressure tactics, Lewis has spent thousands of hours working with code committees, government officials and building owners _ helping 97,000 aged and handicapped Oklahomans to become independent.

Now, with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to reach its first anniversary on July 26, Lewis has been recognized nationally for his work by the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. He received the Citizens Award for the "ultimate" leadership in gaining authority to remove barriers.

"In the four years since I have been in Oklahoma City, George Lewis has done more than any single person to remove barriers here," said Dan Kurtenbach, executive director of Goodwill Industries Inc. of Oklahoma City, which trains the handicapped and provides jobs. "He works quietly behind the scenes. That's why he's so effective." It's more than just requiring handicapped parking spaces and ramps _ the most visible fruits of the work by Lewis in Oklahoma. It's a matter of making buildings accessible for the handicapped so they can get to work or take care of business.

His work has led to doors and restroom stalls wide enough for wheelchairs, drinking fountains and elevators adjusted to wheelchairs, faucets and doors with levers for people who can't grip knobs and other items for functions we take for granted.

The new federal act will require "reasonable accommodation" by employers to the disabled, such as restructuring jobs and modifying equipment without "undue hardship" on business operations, plus accessibility to public transportation. It will become effective for firms with 25 or more employees on July 26, 1992, and for firms with 15 to 24 employees on July 26, 1994.

While employers have complained about the costs, Kurtenbach said it will be less of a problem than most employers think.

"In some cases," he said, "it will mean only a simple thing like putting a desk up on blocks so a wheelchair can slide under it, or moving desks around so a wheelchair can get through. The law also bans discrimination against a disabled person, but only if that person is otherwise qualified for a All that is light years from the problems faced by the handicapped in 1970, when Lewis was asked by Ed Hudgins, one of the HTB founders, to join the mayor's committee. Lewis, a 1954 graduate in architecture of the University of Oklahoma, had expressed his ideals as a student during a radio interview in his home town of Shamrock, Texas.

"I said I wanted to prove that everyone could have the advantage of architecture," said Lewis, but he had no idea where that ideal would lead.

He worked for Robberson Steel; Coston, Frankfurt & Short (now Frankfurt-Short-Bruza); Berlowitz & Associates; and Sorey, Hill & Sorey before becoming chief draftsman of HTB Inc.

"I found that design was important in all phases of architecture," he said, "not just the grant design." Meanwhile, "other phases" were becoming part of a national debate as World War II disabled veterans tried to enter the work force. That was led by Hugo Deffner, a veteran named the Outstanding Handicapped Citizen in America in 1954.

"When Deffner tried to board an airplane to Washington," said Lewis, "he was told no wheelchairs were allowed. After a call to the airline, he was made an exception. …