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New Battle For An Old Warship

The historic warship U.S.S. Constellation has seen many battles during the past century and a half, but none like the one now being fought. At issue is whether a ship built in 1854 must comply with a 1990 s law: the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When the Constellation was in service, there was no reason to make it wheelchair accessible. It was a war ship. But now the Constellation is a museum, and Baltimore engineer Bob Reuter doesn't want to be left out. He's confined to a wheelchair and is suing, arguing that renovations now under way should include special lifts and an elevator.

But the Constellation Foundation and the U.S. Navy insist the changes aren't feasible. There are plans for wheelchair access to a visitor's center and the ship's main deck. But physically challenged guests would still have to settle for virtual tours of other parts of the ship through videos and computer displays. The foundation believes adding an elevator would defeat the purpose of renovations - to make the ship historically accurate.

The Constellation is a public place and under federal law should comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But here's the catch. It's also a historic site and is therefore exempt if proposed changes would damage the ship's historical integrity. While the Navy says they would, Reuter insists they wouldn't.

In either case, this presents a challenge to the keepers of our history: How best to maintain the accuracy of our past hile sharing it with the people of the present.

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