Meeting needs of disabled customers sometimes challenging for businesses
By Robyn Davis Sekula
December 30, 2005
Businesses tasked with accommodating customers under the Americans with Disabilities Act might find that a few adjustments are all it takes to help them meet the needs of the disabled.
BellSouth Corp. provides bills in Braille for blind customers, according to Ellen Jones, regional director for BellSouth.
E.On U.S., the parent company of LG&E Energy LLC, subscribes to the Kentucky Relay service, which assists hearing-impaired customers with telephone calls, according to Brian Phillips, media relations coordinator for E.On U.S.
The utility company also is exploring the option of offering Braille bills, but it currently serves blind customers by offering to read them their bills over the phone when they call the customer service center.
Some doctors' offices have provided translators for hearing-impaired patients, according to Tom Williams, an attorney and member of Ogden Newell & Welch PLLC in Louisville.
Café Emilie, a restaurant on Shelbyville Road, has an extra-wide entrance with no steps and keeps its tables far enough apart so people in wheelchairs can comfortably navigate its seating area, according to co-owner Charlie Knieriem.
The University of Louisville helps students with medical conditions gain flexibility from professors, when necessary, and will move classes when necessary so that someone who is disabled can attend the class, according to Cathy Patus, director of the disability resource center at the University of Louisville.
And Michael May, who uses a wheelchair, said the best seats in the Cinemark Tinseltown USA movie theater are the handicapped-accessible seats, which are in the center of the movie theater's stadium seating. He uses an elevator to access the seats.
Law states some specific guidelines
But for other businesses, the requirements of the law are tougher to meet. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law 15 years ago, prohibits discrimination by businesses against customers with disabilities.
The law requires business operators to remove barriers that might keep customers from getting into, and navigating around, their businesses.
The ADA law specifies exactly how wide a doorway has to be to accommodate a wheelchair and the height of a ramp, according to Chuck Rogers, a Jefferson Circuit Court staff attorney and president of the Metro Disability Corp., a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of the disabled.
Those specifications also are spelled out in Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government building codes.
The ADA lists specific construction standards for buildings completed for first occupancy after 1993 and for those that have undergone alterations since 1992. Buildings constructed prior to 1992 must make efforts to be accessible “if it is readily achievable,” Rogers said.
But what is meant by “readily achievable” is up to business owners and advocates for the disabled, such as Rogers, to discern.
Rogers, who uses a wheelchair, was among a group of disabled people who sued several businesses along Bardstown Road last year to force them to come into compliance with ADA.
Some of the businesses immediately made changes, others closed or moved, and others are working to address the problems. (See item at end of story for the status of those cases.)
Rogers said he thinks “readily achievable” accommodations at the Bardstown Road businesses fall in a cost range of $2,000 to $4,000.
Some changes are not easy
But it’s been hard for at least one of those building owners to come into compliance.
Mark Allgeier, owner of five-year-old Cumberland Brews, at 1576 Bardstown Road, was one of the companies sued by Rogers and his fellow advocates. Cumberland Brews’ accessibility problems include steps between the sidewalk and the front door and the lack of a handicapped-accessible bathroom for people who use a wheelchair.
But Allgeier rents the building that houses his restaurant and said his lease specifically prohibits changes to the building.
Now he faces a range of choices. He can move, which he doesn’t want to do because he loves his location and his building, and he also thinks he would lose some business if his customers couldn't find him.
Allgeier could make the changes, but he said he'd violate his lease, giving his landlord cause to evict him. Or he can buy his building and then make the changes, but he's not even sure the building is for sale.
Will Driscoll, the attorney who filed the lawsuits, said one lesson he and the Metro Disability Coalition have learned is to make the landlords party to the lawsuits.
Driscoll added Timothy Cain, the owner of the building that houses Allgeier's business, to his lawsuit. “In the future, we will be naming the building owners also as defendants to keep the cases on track even if the business operating moves,” Driscoll said.
Cain said he has discussed the matter with Allgeier's attorney and that he is awaiting recommendations on solutions from an architect and engineer. But he noted that the building is so small and narrow that the options for making it accessible are limited.
Business owners who lease have few options
Allgeier said he would like to accommodate the disabled. But he also is concerned about changing the character of the Bardstown Road area, which is lined with shops in older buildings, many of which probably aren't accessible.
“I think what they are doing is right-on correct,” Allgeier said. “Anyone should be able to go anywhere they want. But you'll end up losing what was the Highlands if you press this up and down Bardstown Road.”
At nearby Ear X-Tacy, president John Timmons is in much the same situation. Timmons was not among the companies sued by Rogers' group, but he said that about once a year, he receives a complaint about the lack of accessibility in the music store. He said there is little he can do because he doesn't own the building.
Timmons’ biggest concern is spending substantial money on making the changes, but then not staying in the building.
“If I owned the building, I'd be more inclined” to make the building more accessible, Timmons said. “I'm all for it. I just can’t afford to spend the money when it’s not my building. ... It sounds selfish, but I’m always trying to accommodate as much as I can, but when it comes to major renovations, I defer to owners.”
Timmons said he has trained his staff to assist the store's disabled customers as much as possible.
“We do have a number of folks who come in and need help because they cannot see,” Timmons said. “I try to make the staff aware and get them to spend as much time as they can with those customers who need assistance.”
Rogers said he sympathizes with business owners who rent their locations. He added that he believes landlords and tenants should share the burden of retrofitting a building to come into compliance with ADA.
Flaws in the law
Allgeier’s story represents one of the flaws in the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Laura Rothstein, professor of law at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.
Under the ADA, both the landlord and tenant are responsible for providing access to a building. But the law is unclear on how that responsibility is to be allocated, so landlords and tenants must determine between them who is responsible.
The law also is difficult for some business owners because of the vagueness of the language. What is “readily achievable” to one person might be a major problem for another.
“What (business owners would) like to have is a little check-off list, something like, ‘If I do these five things, I'll be in compliance,’ “ Rothstein said.
Changes in business
It might be tough, too, for businesses to continue to be compliant with the law after opening, noted Tommy Clark, disabilities coordinator in the Office for Aging and Disabled Citizens in the Louisville Metro Department of Human Services.
Clark often assists businesses with becoming and remaining accessible to the disabled, and he also helps metro government with keeping its buildings accessible.
Sometimes a business has a ramp for the disabled, but a vending machine for newspapers or bubble gum is placed in the empty space at the top of the ramp.
“That’s a real, real problem because business owners think, hey, that's a great empty space to put things,” Clark said. “From a business standpoint, you want to sell as much product as possible, and you look at empty space as a place to sell things, not as a place that's necessary for someone.”
The holiday shopping season often brings more challenges to the disabled, especially people in wheelchairs. Stores carry extra merchandise and often place it in the middle of aisles, making it tough to navigate.
Clark also checks out problems with metro government buildings.
The former Jefferson County Police Building at 768 Barret Ave., now the home of the records department of the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Police Department, had a lift at the side of the building for people in wheelchairs, but it was not always operational, Clark said.
About three months ago, that lift was replaced with a ramp at the main entrance.
Clark said that fixing or replacing the lift had long been a priority, and the city allocated the money for the project this year. “That’s something we look out for in Louisville Metro Government,” Clark said. “We try to make it so that a user who has the right to come into a building has the ability to get into it.”
Gallery accommodates all
One business Clark assisted was Flame Run LLC, a glass-blowing studio and gallery at 828 E. Market St. Brook White, co-owner of the gallery with his wife, Suzie White, opened their business in 2004 in a group of former warehouse-style buildings.
White said he was told by Clark and officials in the Louisville Metro Department of Inspections, Permits and Licenses what he would have to do to make the building compliant.
For his business, it meant fixing deteriorated sidewalks leading up to the building and replacing a step leading to the front door with a small ramp.
Inside, he changed the restroom setup from two small restrooms to one large, unisex restroom to allow someone in a wheelchair room enough to turn around.
The Whites also decided to replace the poured concrete floor in one building to make it all one level and smooth, so it would be easier for someone in a wheelchair to navigate.
Flame Run received the Breaking Barriers Award this year from the Metro Disability Coalition for the gallery's efforts in making the facility accessible.
White said he’s happy to have the award, but he doesn't really think what his business did was anything particularly special.
“We've gotten a lot of recognition, which is great, but I'm uneasy about it because I feel we were just doing what we should have done anyway,” White said.
In early December, White was able to host a group of seven children, all in wheelchairs, from the Home of the Innocents.
The fact that his facilities are accessible, also has helped the gallery operate more efficiently, he said. “It even helps us on a day-to-day basis to be able to load equipment in and out,” White said. “We can get a forklift in and out, and gives us ease of moving.”
Changes in the works
Rogers, of the Metro Disability Coalition, said he has seen a lot of changes in businesses in the 15 years since ADA was signed into law. The most changes have been in new building design. Large chain stores and restaurants are mostly accessible, he said.
But it’s small businesses, especially those in older buildings, that still are struggling with how to come into compliance with ADA, if they've even thought about it at all.
Rogers believes that some simply can't comply.
“If you see a business on Bardstown Road, for instance, that has a porch and five steps up to it, and that business is right up to the sidewalk, it is more than likely not readily achievable for them to make it accessible,” Rogers said.
“There is no way they could put a ramp in,” he continued. If a building has a 6-foot rise to that door, it would need a 72-foot ramp to make it accessible according to the building code.
“The law was not designed to put businesses out of business or to require unreasonable things,” Rogers said. “But if you have a business that has one little stoop to get in, it is readily achievable.”
As Rogers sees it, businesses that are accessible to people in wheelchairs or who use a cane make it easier for all of their customers.
A father or mother pushing a stroller would appreciate a ramp or curb cut. Someone using crutches or a walker, even temporarily, would find a ramp extremely helpful.
And as the population ages, Rogers said, more people might find themselves in a wheelchair or using a walker. With more people facing mobility issues, it makes good business sense to make buildings more disabled-friendly.
“That’s a customer base,” Rogers said. “If you include them in your customer base, that's more money in your pocket.”
Deciphering the code
Figuring out exactly how to accommodate customers with disabilities is covered in the building code for Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government.
But each building is different, cautions Robert Kirchdorfer, assistant director of Inspections, Permits and Licenses for metro government.
“It's not easy, and each facility has to be reviewed,” Kirchdorfer said. “I hate to give people guidelines when each situation is different.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act details how buildings should accommodate people with disabilities, and the building code for Louisville follows those same guidelines.
In an ideal situation, a wheelchair ramp should rise by one inch for each foot of length. Doorways should have about 32 inches of clearance when the doors are open.
For existing buildings, it is only when the owner is making changes to a building that require an inspection that building code applies, Kirchdorfer said.
If a business owner is changing the front door, for example, the new door will need to meet the accessibility standards in the building code.
Sometimes, though, business owners are forced to make changes after a disabled person complains or sues the business.
“A lot of people don’t know they have a problem until someone brings it up to them,” Kirchdorfer said.
And in the Bardstown Road or Frankfort Avenue areas, for example, “it's a lot harder to comply,” he said, because some businesses are in older buildings that sit right on property lines. There’s simply no room to add a ramp without cutting into someone else’s property. Kirchdorfer refers business owners with questions to the Web site of the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that provides information on how to create accessible buildings and services. The site is www.access-board.gov.
The U.S. Department of Justice provides a booklet detailing specifications for meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act. Call (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TDD) to receive a copy.
Bardstown Road lawsuits
Last year, attorney Will Driscoll filed three lawsuits in U.S. District Court on behalf of several local disabled residents against eight businesses, seeking to force the businesses to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. All of the businesses are located on Bardstown Road. Some of the businesses made changes to become compliant, and others moved rather than making changes. Driscoll supplied the following information on the status of the lawsuits.
Butterfly Garden Cafe, pending
David R. Friedlander Inc. (antiques store), moving, dismissed
Allgeier Brewing Co. Inc., d.b.a. Cumberland Brews, pending
Dreams with Wings Inc., made changes, dismissed
A-1 Vacuum & Sewing Center, Sales and Services Inc., made changes, dismissed
General Eccentric Inc., moved, dismissed
Runako Properties LLC, moved, dismissed
Dugan Insurance Agency, made changes, dismissed