The Justice Department recently completed a draft totaling 1,000 pages of proposed changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The sweeping changes would affect facilities of all kinds, including courthouses, drinking fountains, amusement park rides, stadium and theater seating, fishing piers, boat slips, and bowling lanes. The regulations would establish specific design requirements catered to each facility.
Business owners see the changes as a financial drain, leading to expensive construction costs and potential losses in revenue while construction is completed. Disability rights advocates praise the legislation as long overdue, but also view it as only one major step in a process to make public facilities more easily accessible to the disabled.
The Justice Department is estimating that more than 7 million businesses will be affected, with construction costs to bring those businesses into compliance totaling more than $23 billion over the next 40 years.
The rules would apply to new businesses and facilities and to alterations of existing ones. Businesses also would have to remove ‘readily achievable’ barriers — changes that don't require a lot of difficulty or expense. The proposal was published by the government last month. Final regulations could take effect next year, after a period for public comment.
While the costs to bring facilities into compliance may severely impact small businesses, the potential revenue stream from the roughly 51 million disabled Americans could prove to be a financial boon to those same companies.
Critics from both sides of this issue are already weighing in on the potential consequences of passage of this proposed legislation. Disabled rights advocates are concerned about a “safe harbor” provision that would let small businesses meet their obligation to remove barriers in a given year if, in the preceding year, they spent at least 1 percent of their gross revenues on barrier removal.
“We are worried about people claiming ‘we did this, this and this, we renovated the bathroom on the second floor’ but you still can't get in the three steps at the front door,” said Kleo King, senior vice president of accessibility services at United Spinal Association. “There’s too much room for abuse here.”
Business groups fear the changes will lead to a new round of lawsuits from “drive-by” ADA lawsuits that are attempts by lawyers to get quick cash settlements. Both sides have said that much uncertainty remains and are asking the Justice Department to clarify some points before releasing the final rules.
While waiting for the changes to be passed, design and construction professionals would be wise to familiarize themselves with some of the changes. This would give firms a head start on methods to bring facilities into compliance. To see the proposed changes, go to the ADA website at www.ada.gov/NPRM2008/ADAnprm08.htm.