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Tenant aims to improve access in Nahant

Town vows to address needs of handicapped

Gretchen Benkert  in the driveway at The Spindrift, where she believes access could be better.

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Gretchen Benkert in the driveway at The Spindrift, where she believes access could be better.

Gretchen Benkert, 52 and disabled, has lived in Nahant for 37 years, the last 14 as a tenant at the Housing Authority-run Spindrift, where there are 28 apartments for the disabled and, predominantly, the elderly.

Benkert has become a one-woman advocate for disabled people in Nahant, and town officials say that as a result, they have made some changes and are considering more.

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“We’ll do everything we can to make government accessible to everyone in the most effective, comfortable way that we can,” said Selectman Michael Manning.

Benkert said she first became concerned about handicapped access at the Spindrift after a fire alarm went off last fall.

“We’d been having construction since the beginning of September into October,” said Benkert, who explained that the alarm was triggered on a day when construction necessitated the closing of two doors, leaving just a side door for access. But she found it hard to get out through that door, which had a hard-to-open latch and a 2-inch lip to maneuver her wheelchair over. The door was also not wide enough for the Spindrift’s other disabled tenant who uses a wheelchair.

“She stayed,” said Benkert. “We even had tenants who didn’t come out because they knew the front door was locked.”

Even without the complications of construction, Benkert said, the building’s doors aren’t equipped with handicapped-accessible automatic openers. “We have not one door that you can open from a seated position,” said Benkert, who brought her concerns to the town and the state, to both the Office on Disability and the fire marshal.

That wasn’t the only issue, said Benkert, who would also like to see better ramps installed, safety railings replaced, the procedures and policies posted, and regular fire drills conducted at the location.

When Benkert went to speak to town officials, she found more to complain about — town buildings that had their own accessibility issues. For example, the Board of Selectmen’s meeting was held on the stage of the public meeting hall, which was difficult for her to access.

That brought more complaints.

In all, she’s talked with the disability office, the fire marshal, and the attorney general’s office at the state level, and the building inspector, fire chief, Board of Selectmen, and Housing Authority on the local level.

The result? There will be changes all around, say officials from both the town and the Housing Authority.

Already, the Board of Selectmen has moved its meeting space from atop the stage in the meeting room at Town Hall to a more accessible spot on the floor of the room. Manning noted that access to the second and third floors of the town’s library will be part of the discussion as the library trustees consider whether to make improvements to that historic building.

“Actually, we’ve been noticing [handicapped accessibility] for the past five years, and addressing it with ramps and better accessibility for buildings,” said Richard Lombard, a longtime selectman who said that having his leg in a cast for six months has made him even more aware of the challenges some people face. He noted that in recent years, the town has added a handicapped parking space and curb cuts to accommodate wheelchairs at the town library, and has added better handicap-access signs at town beaches.

“Her concerns are our concerns, and we’re doing a complete evaluation,” Lombard added. “The majority of the handicapped problems are taken care of. I believe there are a few other curb cuts we can still make, with part of our Chapter 90 money for paving the roads and sidewalks.

“Her biggest complaint is with the Housing Authority, but we have no control over the Housing Authority,” Lombard said. “They’re addressing those issues.”

Susan Bonner, chairwoman of the authority, said that since Benkert is a resident, confidentiality concerns make it difficult to speak directly about the issue. Speaking more generally, she said the authority is addressing access issues at Spindrift, where she is also a resident.

“We’ve already done things,” said Bonner. As part of the fall construction, workers changed the pitch of a ramp leading into the building, and following recommendations from the Office on Disability, she expects more changes beginning this spring.

“We’re addressing the issues. They were all pretty minor, and have either been addressed or will be addressed shortly.”

An access specialist who inspected the Spindrift property after the construction was done last fall identified architectural barriers that a person with disabilities might encounter. Bonner said the authority’s intention is to be in compliance with regulations.

Benkert said she’s glad to hear that news, but will take a wait-and-see attitude with both the Board of Selectmen and the Housing Authority.

“I’ve heard it before,” she said.

David Rattigan may be reached at DRattigan.Globe@
gmail.com
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