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Open for business: what the new disabilities act requires.

Open for Business What the New Disabilities Act Requires

People who have had a broken leg or another disability - temporary or permanent - know that simple tasks like pulling open a door and hurrying through it before it slams shut can be difficult and frustrating. Imagine being denied admittance to your local movie theatre or cafe because you are considered to be a fire hazard when you sit in the aisle in your wheelchair. Or perhaps you can't go to your neigborhood travel agency, bakery, or beauty parlor, because you can't get up the four steps to the entrance.

Accommodating All Customers

The Public Accommodations Title of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that, effective January 26, 1992, all public places and private businesses cannot discriminate against any person with a disability who is otherwise eligible to receive the establishment's services or privileges or to purchase its goods. And it requires that no criteria limit an individual's participation or segregates people, by imposing special requirements or restrictions that are not imposed on others. An amusement park, for example, cannot require chaperones for wheelchair users. And a restaurant cannot force them to sit in designated areas. Nothing in the bill, however, forces an entity to accommodate an individual if it poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Further, a business must take necessary steps to provide auxilliary aids and services to make its goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations open equally to persons with disabilities of all kinds. Such aids must be provided only if it will not result in an undue burden on the business. A restaurant, for example, doesn't have to print its menus in braile for blind patrons, if the waiter is willing to read the menu to the customer. A clothing store would not need brailled price tags if sales personnel can relay the price verbally. A retail shop need not lower its shelves if a salesperson is available to reach merchandise for customers in wheelchairs.

The law, called "powerful in its simplicity" by President Bush, allows the entity to choose among various alternatives as long as the result is effective communication to all patrons.

"It's difficult to find someone who doesn't know someone with a disability. It's not a |we and they' situation," said Sherry Repscher, executive director of the Utah Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, a position she's held for 11 years. "Businesses can use common sense, and we can design and plan public spaces to include people, not exclude them."

Repscher said that making our community's public areas accessible to all will benefit more than 43 million Americans who have a disability. "We all need to plan for the future, to ensure that our banks, restaurants, and other places of business will be accessible to us later in life, because if accident or injury or disease doesn't get you, old age will. All individuals should be able to choose their doctor, dentist, or favorite florist or restaurant from all who provide the service."

Modifying Existing Facilities

One in seven Utahns has a disability. These individuals and their family members and friends have to plan ahead when they want to dine out, go shopping, or get around town. More often than not they have to call restaurants in advance to see if they can be accommodated - that they'll be able to access the restrooms and so forth. For them, their choices of which establishments they patronize are limited to those that have wider doorways and aisles, braille communicative aids, helpful salespeople, businesses near public bus stops, or those on the first level of a building.

"Most people with disabilities don't need a lot of changes to function," said Bob Sevigny. A congressional aid to Congressman Bill Orton in Washington, D.C. Sevigny is a wheelchair user. "The ADA simply mandates physical access to buildings, facilities, restrooms, and so forth. The changes are useful to the general public, and once the changes have been made, they are in place forever."

Effective in January, a movie theater, bowling alley, or auditorium, for example, cannot deny admittance to an individual because of his or her disability. Furthermore, entities must make reasonable changes in their policies and procedures to accommodate such clients and customers, unless so doing would alter the nature of the service provided. A restaurant, for example, must modify its rule barring dogs to allow entry of guide and service dogs.

Any business or public place also must remove architectural, transportation, and communication barriers in existing facilities if the removal is readily achievable (easy to do and not too costly). Modifications to comply with ADA might include ramping the steps; installing grab bars or handrails in restrooms; widening doorways and shower-stalls; lowering telephones, elevator buttons, and drinking fountains; and designing adjacent sidewalks to include curb cuts.

Buildings that are less than three stories or have less than 3,000 square feet per story, however, do not need an elevator, unless the building is a shopping center, mall, or the professional office of a health-care provider. The building owner has the ultimate responsibility of making the necessary modifications. Building inspectors within local governments will enforce compliance.

Many people and organizations who were initially opposed to the legislation are now working to promote non-confrontational and cooperative compliance. John Sloan, Jr., president and chief executive officer of the National Federation of Independent Business, represents more than 500,000 small and independent businesses in all 50 states. One of the early opponents to the ADA, he is now on the executive committee of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. "Although many small firms are exempt from the employment provisions in the law, all must accommodate clients and visitors."

But many businesspeople, while they are sympathetic with the purpose of ADA, are concerned about the costs to small business. "We all want to make life easier for disabled Americans," agreed Robert Kimsey, president of Utah's Sizzler restaurant franchise and chairman of the Utah Restaurant Association. "But compliance of the ADA is something the government should fund. The vagueness of the terms just invites litigation. Congress has failed to give us enough direction; it has abandoned its responsibility, leaving it up to the judicial system to figure out."

The hotel industry is also concerned about complying with ADA. At its annual convention in St. George in October, the Utah Hotel/Motel Association featured a special presentation all about the ADA. "The lodging industry is almost singled out in the language of the ADA," said Julie Peck, director of UHMA. Though it may be too early to tell, she believes compliance will pertain mostly to large corporate hotel chains that have several properties and sufficient cash flow to make the necessary retrofitting. "For a small, independent 25-unit motel in central Utah, it will be financially burdonsome to go in and retrofit the property," Peck said.

"It's not yet possible to say how the ADA will impact the hotel industry," said Tom Youngblood, government affairs spokesperson for the American Hotel/Motel Association in Washington, D.C., who was a guest speaker at the Utah convention. "The practical applications of the law are only going to be determined over time as hotels evaluate what is reasonable and affordable to do," he said. Businesses should realize that the law is here, and look for ways to remove the barriers and open up our hotels and businesses for more people.

Regulations for New Construction

Perhaps the most regulative portion of the Public Accommodations Title of ADA pertains to new construction. Under the Act, all new facilities scheduled for first occupancy in January of 1993 must be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.

Studies have shown that when accessibility features are incorporated in the design phase, the special features cost less than 1 percent of the total cost of the project.

When an existing facility is being renovated, the alternative path of travel around the renovation site must be accessible to all people, including those who use wheelchairs. The detour area must also provide access to bathrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains.

"The ADA regulations are different than traditional building codes and standards, because it is civil rights legislation," said Greg Allen, an associate with MHT Architects in Salt Lake City. "There's actually not too much in the ADA that is very different from the Utah State Handicapped Code. This is honest legislation aimed at giving handicapped people the ability to go through public spaces that they should have access to. I'm going to learn more about the specifics as time goes on; we'll all have to in order to make our buildings accessible," he said.

"To the extent that ADA regulates new construction, it will make life much better for the elderly, handicapped, and for people who in everyday life can't run up and down the stairs. ADA will benefit everybody."

How Accessible are Utah Businesses?

Utah's public places and buildings get high marks for accommodating people with disabilities. "During my visits to Salt Lake and Provo, I've noticed that Utah is pretty good in terms of access for the disabled," Sevigny noted.

Advocates for the disabled were involved in reviewing the planning stages for the new Delta Center, for example. Upon touring the completed facility, they found access to be generally very good.

"Fashion Place Mall is another example of a building that has been satisfactorily improved," said Barbara Toomer of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT). ADAPT is lobbying to persuade officials to transfer 25 percent of Medicaid monies now going to nursing homes to use for attendant care so people can stay in their homes. "The mall has wider doors at every entrance. The new ZCMI Center has one sufficient entrance, but unfortunately the bus lets you off around the corner. But a major improvement is simply the ability to get in the door," she explained. As a wheelchair user, Toomer finds that grocery stores - with the electric or open-air doors and wider aisles - are already in compliance, and that modifications are being made in fabric stores, to enable her to get up and down the aisles.

Deadlines for Compliance

Businesses with 25 or more employees and more than $1 million in gross receipts must take reasonable measures to comply with ADA Public Accommodations requirements by January 26, 1992. Those with 25 or fewer employees and gross receipts of $1 million or less have until January 26, 1993.

Many people involved in drafting the legislation wanted an exemption for small businesses, especially those with fewer than 15 employees. The idea was given serious consideration, but lawmakers decided that such an exemption would defeat the purpose of the ADA and compromise its goal: to open up everyday American life to persons with disabilities. Excluding businesses with fewer than 15 employees would have left out almost all doctors' and dentists' offices, pharmacies, drycleaners and so forth, making them still off limits to more than 43 million Americans. In signing the bill. President Bush concluded that it would only be effective if there were no exemption for small entities under the Public Accommodations section of the legislation.

Upon first review, the regulations of the ADA appear vague and intimidating to most. "There are a number of different requirements in the bill," agreed Youngblood. "But the overall message is that a business cannot discrminate in providing goods and services. We have an obligation to provide communication aids to individuals with disabilities who need them, and an obligation to remove physical barriers. But the law includes limits to what has to be done under each requirement. The bottom line is that there's a pervasive obligation on everybody to do something," he said.

The landmark legislation will be on the minds to Americans for some time. "You will hear a lot about this as time goes by. The ADA will be a major issue for businesses in the next two years," Allen predicted.

Cheryl Smith is managing editor of UB.
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Title Annotation:impact on Utah businesses
Author:Smith, Cheryl
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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