Balancing the Scales

The ADA slowly gains weight

by Bill Norman on July 1, 2007 - 9:54am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 4

Now ending its 17th year, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gradually is moving toward its avowed goal of removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from full and equal access to public accommodations and employment. The ADA was signed on July 26, 1990.

Although the legislation has scored its share of milestones, the ADA’s journey to 2007 hasn’t been without complications. Rules that spell out how businesses and government agencies must comply with the ADA have changed, at times almost to the point of contradiction. Language in the original federal legislation sometimes has been subject to widely varying and conflicting interpretations by the courts.

Complicating the situation: The ADA itself doesn’t provide specific details about how facilities are to be made or kept accessible. Suggestions for heeding ADA general requirements are contained in the ADAAG (ADA Accessibility Guidelines), but they’re only guidelines.

And when people with disabilities seek redress for ADA violations, often their only recourse, apart from asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene, is to file a lawsuit, replete with all the inconveniences and costs that lawsuits entail.

Considering that people with disabilities (including learning difficulties, diseases and physical injuries) comprise 11 percent of the U.S. population, it might seem that ADA wrinkles should have ironed out by now. Instead:

  • ADA claimants are some of the least successful plaintiffs in the federal courts; their failure rate is second only to that of convicts filing claims.
  • There’s no indication that the ADA has helped to boost the employment rate of people with disabilities.

Not that there aren’t successes. In the areas of the ADA that deal with accessibility (public and government services, accommodations and telecommunications), slow progress is being made. But there’s still a long way to go.

In the following articles, and in "U.S. Justice Department Mediation Program Helps Settle ADA Complaints," Quest takes a closer look at the ADA over the past year. Some articles explore the experiences of people with neuromuscular diseases who have battled ADA problems in their own lives; others identify precedent-setting legal victories; and still others look at new products that help ease the way to full accessibility for all Americans.


Chevrolet Uplander
A modified Chevrolet Uplander on the streets of NYC

In New York City, ADA-compliant Chevrolet Uplander TC (taxi cab) vans have joined the city’s cab fleet. Floors in the vans have been lowered 12 inches to create 58 inches of interior headroom. The vehicles also feature manual foldout ramps, non-slip flooring and belt tie-downs.

In addition, the Vehicle Production Group in Troy, Mich., is now producing what it calls the Standard Taxi, a wheelchair-accessible car specifically engineered for use in taxi service. The Standard Taxi can accommodate not only a wheelchair or scooter, but also up to four other passengers in a rear seat. A lowered floor and recessed entry ramp are standard, as are belt tie-downs. The vehicle will be offered to taxi fleets across the country.

Rookie lawyer goes after ADA violators

When it comes to businesses whose facilities aren’t ADA-compliant, Amy Champlin of Gulfport, Fla., doesn’t mess around.

Amy Champlin
Amy Champlin

Champlin, 24, received her law degree in December, took the bar exam in February and plans to launch a solo law practice in which she’ll specialize in “all aspects of disability discrimination — everything from disabled people’s divorce and child custody to ADA violations.”

She describes some of the ADA violations she encountered when visiting several businesses in her power wheelchair (she has Friedreich’s ataxia):

“Tire Kingdom — I could not get in the bathroom. New China Buffet — I could not get in the bathroom. International House of Pancakes — there was a step from the parking lot that led to an entrance ramp. Dog Training Club of St. Petersburg — the only access was through a dog run and 6 feet up a very steep ramp for dogs who couldn’t climb stairs.”

“After receiving my letter, Tire Kingdom first called and tried to belittle me for wanting a bathroom. Eventually a different gentleman called me back to say the bathroom would be built.

“New China Buffet and IHOP were easy. I wrote the letter and they wrote back that it would be done. And it was.

“The dog training club gave my letter to their lawyer. I felt like they tried to drag their feet, but they did it, and the modifications were expensive.”

Champlin has a game plan for dealing with ADA violations. “The owner of the building/land is responsible for making sure the building is in compliance with ADA,” she says. “The first step is to find out who the owner is. Most county property appraisers have Web sites where this can be done.

“The second step is to write the owner a letter on professional letterhead, preferably sent certified mail, which scares people. I put details about the problem such as, ‘I have to roll through dog poop and go up a steep ramp to get in.’

“I give them a time frame to tell me how they intend to comply, and tell them that ‘appropriate action’ will be taken otherwise.

“That’s usually all it takes with a small business. If they scoff, I work with an experienced attorney to draft a lawsuit.

“Businesses come up with all sorts of excuses. ‘We were grandfathered in.’ ‘We are too old to need to comply.’ They are just excuses. Businesses have to comply.”

Champlin notes that most lawyers won’t ask for payment from someone with a disability filing an ADA lawsuit.

“Making a business become compliant is not a financial hardship.”

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