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ADA Gives Business Access to Customers

August 23, 2015
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, TN

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been in force for 25 years now, and for most companies, its become a part of doing business. But it has taken a learning curve to get to this point, business owners say.

Knoxville [Tennessee] architect George Ewart was just getting into the field about the time the law took effect, and he said it changed the architectural business considerably.

"It really had a lot of impact when it first came out in the 90s — it was huge," he said. "Bathrooms had to be bigger, entrance grades had to change."

Through the years, Stephanie Brewer Cook, ADA coordinator for Knoxville, has taken her share of calls from businesses with questions on what they need to do to comply with the law.

"I will never forget one phone call I got about 10 to 15 years ago," she said. "This man was upset because he owned a small business and it had two steps to the front entrance and someone who used a wheelchair was complaining to him about not being able to get into his business. So, he wanted to know what he needed to do to improve access."

As Brewer Cook helped him sort out some options, the man expressed frustration that after about 25 years in business he had never had a complaint from a customer with a disability until then. "I had to remind him that it could have been because they couldnt get in," she said.

[Photo caption:] Knoxville ADA coordinator Stephanie Brewer Cook demonstrates the ease of getting into and out of the Knoxville Chamber building on Market Square on Aug. 13 thanks to [automatic opener] powered doors. Brewer Cook said accessibility of public spaces is important because 20 percent of our population has a disability right now. “If we dont have a disability today, there is a darn good chance were going to have one before we die, so an accessible community just works for everybody.”

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. According to the U.S. Department of Justices Civil Rights Division, which is charged with enforcing the law, it has been recognized as one of Americas most comprehensive pieces of civil-rights legislation, meant to guarantee that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to take part in everyday life.

That includes employment opportunities, buying goods and services, and taking advantage of government programs and services. The act was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The ADA protects those with disabilities, which it defines as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Titles I and III are the ones that most affect businesses, Brewer Cook said. Title I prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training and other areas of employment. It applies to employers, including state and local governments, that have 15 or more employees.

Title III deals with buildings and places that are open to the public, and Brewer Cook said this is the area where she probably gets most of her questions from businesses. Sometimes business people are confused about what the law requires them to do, she said. It requires them to make reasonable efforts to remove barriers to access and communication so that goods and services are available to those with disabilities. It doesnt demand that the effort be extreme, Brewer Cook said.

For example, she said, "Lets say you have a building with steps in the front, in the back, on the side and theres not enough space outside to add a ramp or whatever. For some reason, you cant make an accessible entrance anywhere."

In such cases, an alternative would be to make the businesses products available in a different way, [Brewer] Cook said. That might involve making them available online or through a catalog, or even installing a doorbell that would allow someone to reach the staff, who could then come outside to take an order.

"Its an absolute extreme and rare occasion that there is absolutely nothing you can do to improve access. ... The law doesnt require a business owner to make millions of dollars worth of renovations to an old building," Cook said. "It requires readily achievable barrier removal."

Retail stores have been heavily impacted by the ADA, and Bill Weigel, chairman and CEO of the Weigels convenience store chain, said coming into compliance with the law has meant a significant expense for the company over the years.

"I dont know the exact amount, but we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

The Powell-based company, which has 64 locations in Knoxville and the surrounding area, has altered parking spaces, redesigned store counters, changed fuel pump heights and made other tweaks to allow its stores to be more accessible, Weigel said.

Its just part of doing business, he said. The company hired a specialist to plan what needed to be done.

"We try to get ahead of things," he said. "Whatever it cost, we did it without batting an eye. Not because we love spending money, but when you know youve got to do something, you might as well get it done."

Overall, Weigel sees the ADA as a plus. It has brought customers he otherwise wouldnt have had into his stores and allowed people who would not have been able to use a convenience store to do so, he said.

"Its been a good thing," he said. "A very, very expensive thing, but a good thing."

Home Federal Bank has 23 branch locations in the Knoxville area. Chief Executive Dale Keasling said the ADA required the bank to make changes in parking, make sure there was wheelchair access to the buildings and inside them, and to make other alterations.

"It is expensive, but I dont think it is something that we have seen as a major problem," he said. "I think it is generally a good act. We have a good number of people with disabilities who need to have access to banks."

One problem with the ADA for businesses and architects is that, because it is a civil-rights law, it does not come with a set of design standards or codes that can be followed, and there is no review body — just the court system, Ewart said.

"A lot of building codes have tried to incorporate the clearances you need for wheelchair access and all that, but nobody reviews you for ADA compliance," he said.

The best defense is to follow the strictest standards in the codes, Ewart said.

But there are advocacy organizations that will take business owners to court when they find access issues at a location. There have been news reports, particularly in California, of plaintiffs receiving huge judgments against businesses.

Under California law, a violation of the federal ADA can bring extra penalties, but Tennessee law does not provide for any penalties above the federal law. Still, Brewer Cook said the federal penalties are not light. Under Title III, the ADA allows a civil penalty of from $55,000 to $75,000 for a first violation; for a subsequent violation, the maximum is $150,000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

On the other hand, there are tax credits and deductions available to help businesses become more accessible, said Donna DeStefano of the Tennessee Disability Coalition. The IRS allows a Disabled Access Credit for businesses with 30 or fewer employees and with total revenues of $1 million or less in the previous tax year.

Some eligible expenses include barrier removal projects, providing sign-language interpreters, making material available in Braille, and others. The maximum deduction is $15,000 a year.

Brewer Cook believes that businesses stand to gain by embracing access improvements because people with disabilities are a significant part of the economy.

"About 20 percent of our population has a disability, at minimum," she said. "That is $1 in $5 that a business owner is either welcoming in or not, by having access or not," she said.

"And then you have the fact that in America, every day 10,000 people turn age 65," Brewer Cook said. "That doesnt mean you have a disability, but there is a good chance that after using the same two knees for 65 years, you are going to have some limitation."

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