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Business Braces For The Impact Of The Americans With Disabilities Act

Racially segregated drinking fountains were the norm in the South three decades ago.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did away with those and other icons of racial discrimination. But water fountains again are part of a federal civil rights movement impacting Arkansas and other states.

The discrimination at issue this time is less overt and cuts across racial lines. It affects the lives of one in seven Arkansans.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandates that those with physical handicaps have equal access to drinking fountains and more. Compliance could involve lowering a water fountain in an office corridor for those confined to wheelchairs. Or it might involve installing Braille-inscribed elevator buttons for the visually impaired.

It's not just the public sector that is having to respond to the ADA.

The law, which went into effect Jan. 26, requires the private sector to make sometimes costly accommodations for the disabled.

One purpose of the act is to create employment opportunities for the disabled. That goal should be accomplished as more businesses become accessible.

Accessibility standards have been in place for new buildings for several years. Now, older structures must meet federal guidelines.

Little Rock's Prospect Building is one of those built prior to the federal mandate. The 135,414-SF office building near the intersection of University Avenue and Cantrell Road already was in partial compliance thanks to an extensive 1988 renovation. But there remained changes that were needed to bring the 17-year-old building up to ADA standards. They included:

* Remodeling two rest rooms for wheelchair accessibility.

* Increasing the number of handicapped parking spaces.

* Adding another wheelchair ramp.

* Lowering emergency telephones in elevators.

* Lowering elevator call buttons in corridors.

* Adding a beeper system to elevators to help blind passengers know what floors they're on.

* Lowering water fountains.

* Installing automatic door openers.

Total cost?

About $60,000.

"We did |the improvements~ because it's the law," says Bob Beal, president of RPM Management Co. of Little Rock.

The law might have been the impetus for the changes, but the investment is producing some unforeseen financial benefits. Improved accessibility attracted several tenants that would not have otherwise approached RPM about leasing space.

The management firm signed the Arkansas Spinal Cord Commission to a 4,900-SF lease. Two tenants migrated to another RPM property because of its adherence to ADA guidelines. Advocacy Services Inc. (4,022 SF) and the Arkansas chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (880 SF) are setting up shop in Evergreen Place.

Agencies that receive federal funds must conduct business in ADA-approved space or the government will cut off appropriations.

Awareness of the changes brought about by the act appears high in the business community. However, some property owners may have the mistaken impression that compliance is on a voluntary basis.

Officials at the Spinal Cord Commission met with a dozen prospective landlords before heading to the Prospect Building.

"About a fourth of the people we talked with weren't willing to discuss major changes even though it is the law," says Cheryl Vines, the commission's director.

What Does It Mean?

A key phrase in the act is "readily achievable," which some view as a nebulous definition.

"Some people have said 'readily achievable' means you have the money in the bank |to make the necessary changes~," says one property manager.

Does that mean the owners of a two-story building with a negative cash flow must bear the added cost of installing an elevator?

Such worst-case scenarios were publicized when business interests fought the legislation. Unfounded rumors such as the assertion that restaurants must have two kitchens -- one accessible to the disabled and one traditional -- are the residue of that intense lobbying campaign.

On the other end of the spectrum, some disabled people have the misconception that every restaurant, movie theater and department store will be totally accessible.

The two rules of thumb governing interpretations of "readily achievable" are common courtesy and common sense.

"Readily achievable" for business is defined as making modifications "without much difficulty or expense." Business owners must decide what that means to them. The act encourages property owners to work with the disabled and find creative answers.

For example, a property owner might install a paper-cup dispenser as an alternative to lowering a water fountain. Or a restaurant manager might assign an employee to read the menu to visually impaired customers as opposed to providing Braille menus.

Still, some in business foresee more problems than solutions.

"There is going to have to be some clarification and litigation before it's all said and done," says one Pulaski County property manager.

If disagreements indeed spill over into federal court, judges will have to examine how much interaction occurred between property owners and the disabled.

"Going to court is a last resort," says Bonnie Johnson of the Arkansas Disability Coalition. "That's not our approach."

ADA advocates, in fact, are hoping to avoid unpleasant confrontations with property owners. When the disabled encounter accessibility problems, they are encouraged to ask those in charge of the facility if they are familiar with the law. The disabled are advised to then ask the manager to check into the problem and determine if an affordable accommodation is possible.

"If we approach the business owner that way, I think we can get a lot accomplished," says Glennis Sharp.

As a businessman and a paraplegic, Sharp has a dual perspective on what the ADA means. The 44-year-old, who operates Wash Day, a coin-operated laundry in North Little Rock, has been in a wheelchair since a 1979 automobile accident.

Sharp had experience defining what "readily achievable" means during talks with his landlord about improving rest rooms. His suggestion was to convert two adjoining rest rooms into one unisex facility, thus keeping costs to a minimum and allowing room for needed modifications.

"To me, that's affordable," Sharp says.

It will take such accommodations throughout Arkansas and across the country to make the ADA work.

Will Awareness Lead To Compliance?

The private sector is well aware of the changes caused by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, according to a survey conducted recently by the Benchmark Group.

The Rogers-based architectural/engineering firm conducted a survey of the nation's largest restaurant chains. There were 250 respondents. The survey showed:

* 90 percent were aware of the ADA.

* 73 percent generally were aware of ADA employment issues.

* 88 percent generally were aware of ADA building-accessibility issues.

* 70 percent had begun complying with the ADA.

"The results were surprising," says Jim Parks, director of marketing for the firm. "The final design requirements for building accessibility weren't even issued until July, so this high level of awareness and planning ... means the word is getting out."

ADA guidelines also will impact government agencies and schools. A survey of 13 school superintendents in northwest Arkansas produced these results:

* 85 percent were aware of the ADA.

* 77 percent generally were aware of ADA employment issues.

* 85 percent generally were aware of ADA building-accessibility issues.

* 46 percent had started the mandatory self-evaluation.

The awareness level among northwest Arkansas superintendents was higher than among their counterparts in northeast Oklahoma, southwest Kansas and southwest Missouri, according to the Benchmark poll.

Observers in the real estate community wonder if the level of ADA compliance will match that high level of awareness.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; effect of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Arkansas businesses
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Feb 3, 1992
Previous Article:Traders Village.
Next Article:The road to recovery.

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