Lewis Breaks Architectural Barriers to Handicapped

Article excerpt

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. In Washington, taxi drivers did not want to deal with him. When he reached the Willard Hotel, a bellman helped carry him up the stairs.

"The door to the bathroom was too small for a wheelchair. When he went to the Department of Labor, he needed help getting up the stairs and then onto the stage to receive the award. He devoted the rest of his life to eliminating barriers." The Presidential Committee on Employment of the Handicapped led to mayor's and governor's committees, but turning Deffner's crusade into local and state laws remained a challenge. Lewis used his soft-spoken manner to lead it in Oklahoma.

"I just explained to committees, government officials and building owners how the barriers could be eliminated," he said. "The biggest problems are in old buildings. The cost is about 1 percent of the building value, while it's minimal for a new building _ a few extra square feet and some equipment." The first push was to see that new publicly owned buildings were barrier free. In 1971-72, Lewis donated extensive time to ensure that the new Myriad Convention Center would meet the standards. The facility received national recognition and awards, and it set the pattern for buildings to come.

By the end of 1972, Lewis convinced the mayor that City Hall should be totally accessible, making it possible for the handicapped and elderly to become involved in city business. He also promoted production of a mini-documentary, called "Backdoor Citizens," by Channel 4.

"That was before Urban Renewal," said Lewis. "It showed simple things like getting a wheelchair over a curb downtown. That same film was used in getting the first shopping mall barrier free.

"We also learned we had to be careful not to set new barriers while eliminating old ones. Cut curbs, for example, became problems for blind people. They couldn't feel the curb with a cain. We need a rough ramp before a corner to solve that." Lewis spent more than 1,300 hours in getting state officials to remove barriers from public rest stops on interstate highways during the early 1970s. This made it easier for 1.7 million disabled citizens a year in passing through Oklahoma.

As a member of the governor's committee, his first project was to provide for a ramp and automatic doors for the State Capitol. He spent more than 600 hours preparing plans and promoting union labor, concrete, reinforcing steel and a handrail so the handicapped could by-pass the monumental steps.

In 1975, Lewis became chairman of the mayor's committee and authored an ordinance for eliminating barriers. When the Building Officials Council Association (BOAC) code included accessibility, he supported it. The city adopted the code in 1976.

The code requires handicapped parking spaces, access to every level, doors three feet wide to accommodate wheelchairs, restrooms with stalls wide enough for wheelchairs, and other items. Lewis also has worked to update the code.

In 1981, Lewis served as liaison for the United Nations International Year of the Disabled. His efforts led to Taipei, Taiwan, becoming a sister city of Oklahoma City. Under Gov. Henry Bellmon, the Oklahoma Office of Public Affairs was appointed to operate state buildings, including barrier-free regulations.

Lewis reorganized the mayor's committee in 1988 to include delegates from major firms and civic groups with 35 members. He is proud of the average attendance of 32.

He also has served as chairman of the Architectural Barriers section of the White House Conference and has served on the President's Committee for 20 years. In addition, he was active in getting a statewide sunvisor certificate and decal to identify vehicles for the handicapped.

With public and commercial buildings now often accessible, the way is paved for the disabled to move easier into work areas.

"We have come a long way," Lewis said. "You hardly ever see a car without an identification in a parking space for the handicapped. People have accepted the idea. The next step is to accept the disabled in the work place.

"There are about 43 million handicapped people in the United States, and about 18 percent are employed. If 40 million are employed, they will cost the public far less and contribute far more by taking their responsibilities as citizens."

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