More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Disabled Fight to Enforce ADA

Monday, October 29, 2001

A paraplegic cannot maneuver his wheelchair through a restroom door. A woman with multiple sclerosis finds a business lacks accessible parking and has to go elsewhere because she is unable to walk long distances.

Although it has been more than 10 years since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was supposed to increase handicapped access in every area, these scenarios are encountered daily by Utahns with disabilities, advocacy groups claim.

And, they say, no one is watching those businesses that have yet to comply with the ADA. In Utah, there is no city, county or state watchdog organization monitoring or enforcing codes for people with disabilities. In most cases, it falls to the disabled themselves.

"We have to enforce the ADA," said Barbara Toomer, a board member for the Disability Rights Action Council and a longtime advocate for people with disabilities. "Nobody is going to do it for us." Last week, DRAC filed suit against The Boyer Co. and Sizzling Platter Inc., saying that some facilities they own are inaccessible to people with disabilities.

The Boyer Co., which develops commercial real estate, was sued along with related entities over the Life Centre Athletic Club in Sandy. Plaintiff Lester Bryan Morgan of Sandy claims in the suit the swimming pool, free weights and locker rooms are inaccessible to wheelchair users.

Sizzling Platter, meanwhile, operates several Sizzler restaurant franchises in Utah. Plaintiff Tammy Miner of Salt Lake City claims in that suit the restaurant does not provide adequate parking, remove obstructions to tables and ensure bathrooms are wheelchair accessible.

Greg Gardner, who manges the Life Centre building, said at the time the suit was filed it came as a surprise; in 10 years, he said, the company has never had a complaint.

Sizzling Platter's Steven Lowe, one of two owners and the firm's attorney, said last week all Sizzler restaurants have handicapped accessible restrooms except for a few that were built in the early 1960s. The design of the Sugar House restaurant, 2111 S. 1300 East, which Miner visited, makes it impossible to enlarge the bathrooms, which are in the middle of the building, Lowe said.

Problems like those identified at these two businesses can be found all over the valley, said John Pace, senior litigation attorney for the Disability Law Center. "Every block in this city has parking that's illegal . . . every public service business has little things they could do to make their business accessible."

Many business owners claim they don't have customers or clients with disabilities, Pace said. That's likely, because if people with disabilities can't mount steps in front of a building or find accessible parking, they will go elsewhere.

"You put a step on a business, it says, 'If you're disabled and use a wheelchair, stay out,' " Toomer said.

The ADA mandates all public access buildings -- banks, hotels, restaurants -- be made accessible to people with disabilities.

The law applies in three ways, Pace said. Brand-new buildings need to be made accessible, and a building that is "significantly renovated" needs to be brought into compliance. A third way is modifications deemed "readily achievable" -- parking, cuts in curbs to allow wheelchair access, adding a ramp, if possible, and widening doorways to public bathrooms, for example.

Businesses are required "under every circumstance" to at least perform the readily achievable tasks, he said. There are exceptions -- if, for instance, a business can prove it would be impossible to make the changes to ensure accessibility, or if other arrangements can be made.

"If I have to put in an elevator to get you to the second floor, it may break my business," said Steve Wrigley, spokesman for the state Division of Services for People with Disabilities. "I could bring the business to you on the first floor."

For instance, a loan officer on the second floor of a bank could come to the first floor to help a customer with disabilities, he said.

Also, a building is not required to make accommodations if it can prove it's impossible to do so, Pace said. Different rules can apply if a building is historic.

City and county building inspectors usually only check for ADA compliance in newly constructed buildings or those that have been remodeled after the owner obtained a permit, said Calvin Schneller, director of the Planning and Development Services Division for Salt Lake County.

"We don't have the staff to routinely go into buildings and check them out," Schneller said.

But the county's inspectors can barely keep up with the new construction currently under way, he said.

Schneller said he wouldn't venture a guess as to the percentage of businesses in the valley that are ADA compliant because of the many variables. "You have to assume that anything new built after 1990 was in compliance," he said. "And [you would have to know] how many buildings were in compliance before that time."

But since the ADA is a federal law, enforced by the U.S. Justice Department, cities and counties have no jurisdiction, said Enzo Calfa, Salt Lake City plans examiner. Building inspectors do, however, point out compliance issues when residents apply for permits to build or renovate, he said.

Still, the ADA remains unpopular, Toomer said. A bill that would have required people with disabilities to give businesses 90 days' written notice before filing suit died in a congressional committee some time ago, "but that's a threat."

"People want to get rid of the ADA," she said. "It's really too bad, because making [a building] accessible for one group makes it accessible to everybody."

Toomer said she has a 4-foot-11-inch-tall relative who benefits from lowered counters, installed to be accessible to those in wheelchairs. Also, mothers with baby carriages might appreciate using a ramp instead of stairs, she said.

"They benefit everybody. People just don't see it that way."

© Copyright 2001, The Salt Lake Tribune