More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Accommodations not provided for people with disabilities by some area businesses

By Gary Johnson
Meadville Tribune

For most of us, deciding whether to shop downtown is a matter of whether the stores offer what we're looking for.

When Tom McDowell considers shopping downtown, he must remember which businesses have entrance ramps, small steps or even thresholds.

McDowell has multiple sclerosis and must use a wheelchair to get around. Because of that, he has a mental map of the downtown businesses that are easy to get into and those that have a step or two that bars unassisted entry to him and others in wheelchairs. "Any place that has a step over four inches tall, I can't get in there," he said.

In response, Charlie Anderson, executive director of the Meadville and Western Crawford County Chamber of Commerce, said there are several reasons, ranging from financial to physical to building ownership, that businesses don't construct handicapped accommodations.

McDowell points to the 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act, noting it requires any business open to the public to install ramps or make similar accommodations for people with disabilities when renovations or other construction is done.

The law notes the price tag of building ramps and similar changes, and does not require businesses not making major renovations to make the substantial changes necessary to be completely handicapped-accessible. Some of those changes include installing ramps and widening doors, repositioning shelves, moving telephones and rearranging furniture, tables and chairs, according to a review of the law.

The law requires existing businesses not making renovations to make only "readily achievable," that is, "easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense."

Though definitions of "easily accomplishable" and "much difficulty or expense" vary, McDowell concedes that because the law mandates that major accommodations be made only during renovations, it doesn't necessarily apply to many downtown businesses. Thus, they are not in violation of the law.

Still, he said, business owners should consider taking it upon themselves to make their stores accessible to the handicapped.

He said installation of ramps would benefit the businesses as well, allowing easier entry of deliveries, baby strollers and the like. In addition, he said, the store would likely see increased business if those in wheelchairs could enter and browse.

Anderson offered several reasons why businesses have not or do not plan to add ramps and other handicapped-accessible accommodations.

"Some of them (business owners) don't own their buildings and the landlord won't do it," he said, adding cost is another issue. "I think anyone would do it if they could afford to do it and it was their building."

Anderson, a former restaurant owner himself, said there's more to it than facilities. "I used to have a business that had about a three-inch step up. Other than that, the whole place was handicapped-accessible. We made it a point that if (a customer) were in a wheelchair, we'd help them in. I think most places are like that."

He said another consideration may be purely financial. "You don't mind remodeling if you are going to get more business. Are those people making the issue going to patronize the business?"

In addition, Anderson said there simply may not be room for a ramp without remodeling the entire entrance. "It could be a problem putting a ramp in. In some places, the doors are real close to the street," he said. "Those are all variables."

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