In the 35 years Barbara Toomer has used a wheelchair for mobility, she's learned a lot about access - and lack of it.

After eating in a fancy restaurant, she had to cut through the kitchen and use the freight elevator to get to the restroom.A hotel had to take her room door off its hinges so she could get inside.

She has gone to funerals through the back door, where coffins are carried in and out. After paying full price for a Neil Diamond concert, she found she couldn't see anything because other fans were standing in front of her.

In a movie theater, she was relegated to the back and told she was a "fire hazard." She usually can't use self-serve gas pumps because the areas don't accommodate her wheelchair. And when she goes to pay, she can't get up the 3-inch curb that typically surrounds the station. At local malls, she can't use pay phones because they are placed too high on the wall. In public "accessible" restrooms, she is sometimes unable to close stall doors because there's no room.

Toomer was one of about 60 people who attended a public hearing Thursday before the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. The board was in Salt Lake City to solicit comment on proposed guidelines to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which provides civil rights and access protection to people who are blind, deaf, physically or mentally dis-abled.

The act, signed by President Bush last summer, prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment, public accommodations, public services and telecommunications.

"I look on ADA as a release of my feelings of powerlessness and look forward to joining the rest of Americans," Toomer said.A number of accessibility issues were discussed. John Freebairn, who is blind, expressed frustration because UTA's Flextrans system is not available to blind people, although they can't drive themselves as some people who use wheelchairs can.

Darlene Cochran, who is deaf, said that phone booths in airports, hotels and malls need to have Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf.

Jan Mallet, director of the Governor's Council for People With Disabilities, complained that while hearing rooms at the State Capitol are accessible, people in wheelchairs must sit in the back of the room, segregated. "That happened once before, and it was unacceptable," she said, referring to the segregation of blacks 30 years and more ago. "Your standards must allow mainstream accessibility."

Language clarity was a recurring theme. "Give us strong, comprehensive guidelines in language that is easily understood," said Robert Irons.

Other complaints included lack of handicap parking, inadequate markers in Braille or raised letters for people who are blind and confusion by contractors and business owners over what the act will mean to them.

Ironically, the meeting began with an apology from board members because the Airport Hilton, where the hearing was held, is not easily accessible to individuals with handicaps. Although wheelchairs are easily accommodated, there is not adequate bus service to the hotel. "We had looked at sites downtown, but we couldn't confirm the dates in time," said board member Robert Brostrom.

The guidelines should be written by April. Anyone who wishes to provide written comment should write to Suite 502, 1111 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036-3894.


(Additional information)

People in wheelchairs

They often can't:

- See at concerts because everyone else is standing.

- Get up the curb to pay for gasoline at self-service stations.

- Use pay phones because they are too high on the wall.