In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, ushering in sweeping changes in areas from employment accommodation to public access. Even today, some of the changes we’ve come to take for granted in the past 27 years—accessible ramps, parking spots, elevators—have implications that reporters can develop into business stories.
Retrofitting and compliance
In most cases, a structure that undergoes a significant renovation has to be made ADA compliant. According to facilities management blog buildings.com, making an office compliant can be an in-depth process. Just about every conceivable item is scrutinized: counter heights, door widths, even the size of lettering on signs. Sometimes, retrofits are as simple as adding a ramp; other times, a total remodel is required.
Companies view these expenses as a routine cost of doing business. The Federal Government offers tax incentives to help small businesses offset up to $5,000 per year for the cost of retrofits and barrier removal. Reporters can ask a business in the process of retrofitting a structures how much the process will cost. Does the money outweigh a potential future lawsuit or bad press? Some businesses might not be able to afford these fixes—what is their side of the story?
Older buildings, frequently home to small businesses, often have access issues. Most owners will recognize the big concerns, such as parking spaces and doorway width. But they may not be aware that something minor—like the placement of a sign or the height of a desk—might be out of code.
Unscrupulous lawyers have seized on this and are filing serial lawsuits about minor ADA violations, counting on easy settlements. Until recently, one firm in California was filing up to 25 suits in a single week. In 2017, Arizona’s legislature approved Senate Bill 1406, which seeks to end these nuisance lawsuits and gives small businesses a chance to fix violations before being forced to pay settlement money. Is this happening in your community? Are local businesses aware of their potential compliance issues and nuisance suit liability?
One of the biggest effects of the ADA is providing reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities. According to research by the Job Accommodation Network (a federal organization under the Department of Labor), 59 percent of these accommodations cost employers nothing, while others rarely cost more than $500.
“Reasonable” means different things for different businesses. Walmart can probably make accommodations more easily than Joe & Ethel’s Country Store. Interview local business owners and managers, and try to gain a consensus on what is “reasonable accommodation.” Then get opinions from a disability lawyer or academic. See how closely popular belief in your community lines up with the law.
Want the best tips and story ideas from the Reynolds Center in your mailbox every month? Sign up for our monthly newsletter!