Recent lawsuits across Southwest Florida have increased focus on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its impact on commercial building owners. The lawsuits, including one against a Bradenton hotel owner that went to trial last year, allege that buildings and services are not easily accessible for handicapped customers, and they have left many building owners questioning whether they are vulnerable to a lawsuit as well.
One of the biggest factors in this issue, says Blalock Walters attorney Mary Fabre Levine, is the date of the building's construction. Since the ADA went into effect in 1991, buildings constructed before Jan. 26, 1992, are not expected to meet as many requirements, but owners still must consider certain issues.
The first consideration, says Levine, is "removal of barriers, whether or not a disabled person actually has access to the building." Curb heights, sidewalk slopes and doorway dimensions are all factors that should be considered. "The second priority," says Levine, "is can they get access to the goods and services that are offered?" The third priority, and one of the most expensive upgrades for older buildings, is handicap-accessible restrooms.
The act calls for removal of barriers "without undue expense or burden on the business owner." That's vague language, but Levine says it gives some leeway for the mom-and-pop stores that don't have the operating budgets of a large corporation.
She recommends that small businesses contact a lawyer who specializes in ADA defense, determine what changes can be made, and make that a regular part of the budget, even if it's one small step at a time. "It's cheaper to make renovations," says Levine, "than to be engaged in a lawsuit".
While it would be nice to go after big contracts with government, we’re developing partnerships with smaller companies. We’re in a position to attract them, and we’re laying out the red carpet; they will create jobs for young people.
— Institute for the Ages CEO Tom Esselman, before his speech, “Positive Aging Pioneers,” at New Topics New College in January.