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MAHONING COUNTY COURTHOUSE Officials ease the trials of the disabled



Published: Mon, January 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A more accessible building is long overdue, one judge says.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Stephen Holter got away with something last week that judges normally won't tolerate in the courtroom.

He talked -- nonstop -- from the time jury selection began, through the opening statements by attorneys and during every word of testimony from every witness.

But with all that talking, no one heard a sound.

Holter is a sign-language interpreter from the Youngstown Community Center for the Deaf. He was in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to translate for a 44-year-old deaf man from Youngstown serving as a juror in a criminal trial.

The deaf man's name cannot be used because jurors' identities are kept confidential during trials. The trial was continuing today in the courtroom of Judge Robert Lisotto.

"When we get calls from people who are handicapped in any way, we have to do all we can to accommodate them," said jury commissioner Edward Barone.

If a prospective juror is deaf, Barone asks whether he or she is able to communicate through sign language. If so, an interpreter is secured and assigned to stick with the juror as long as necessary.

Barone said it costs the county $42 an hour to pay an interpreter.

"If they don't sign, then there is nothing we can do," he said.

Lacking: That's a problem that handicapped people shouldn't have to put up with, Judge Lisotto said. He believes the county should have equipment to accommodate people with disabilities, whether visual, hearing or physical.

"That should have been in place a long time ago," the judge said. "But since it's not, they need to get the ball rolling and get it done."

Some courtrooms in other areas have video screens on which witness testimony is transcribed and printed out for the hearing impaired. He thinks that would have been helpful for the juror in this case.

"I know that stuff is expensive and I don't want the county to go broke buying it, but we really need to move in that direction," he said.

Action: County Administrator Gary Kubic said commissioners have long talked about equipping a courtroom to accommodate the disabled, and this could well be the year it gets done.

The 7th District Court of Appeals and the prosecutor's office are moving out of the courthouse soon and into the adjacent administration building. One of the five common pleas judges, most likely Judge James C. Evans, will move into the court of appeals space.

Kubic said commissioners would like to do the courtroom upgrade while that office shuffling is going on.

The project would include installation of wheelchair lifts to help disabled people into the jury box and witness stand, as well as electronic equipment to assist the deaf and blind, he said.

When the courtroom is done, it will be available for use by any judge who needs to accommodate a disabled juror, lawyer, litigant or spectator.

Until a courtroom is selected for the upgrade, there is no cost estimate, he said.

"You're talking about the total renovation of a courtroom. We need to do the science and the math architecturally," Kubic said. "You don't want to just jam things in. You need to have room and everybody needs to be comfortable."

Wheelchair ramp: Judge Lisotto and Administrative Judge Maureen A. Cronin said commissioners must also look beyond a single courtroom and improve handicap accessibility to the entire courthouse.

Judge Cronin was especially upset that better access has not been provided for the physically disabled who must use a door off Front Street, on the building's south side.

There is a wheelchair ramp leading to the door, but the door is locked. Visitors must press a buzzer and wait outside until a deputy lets them in.

"It sickens me to see people stand outside in the rain and cold," Judge Cronin said. "I can't believe it has taken so long to make this courthouse handicap accessible."

Commissioners recently had two handicap-accessible parking spaces installed in front of the courthouse. In conjunction with that, facilities staff was to open the Front Street door so people can get inside and wait in a vestibule, but that hasn't happened yet.

Kubic said it will be done soon, but he's not sure when.

bjackson@vindy.com




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