Equal access for the disabled Business owners grapple with cost, uncertainty of complying with new law


An article in Sunday's Business Section incorrectly stated when some companies that own buildings must comply with public accommodations provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Companies with 11 to 25 employees and between $500,000 and $1 million in annual revenues will not be subject to civil actions until July 26, 1992. Companies with 10 or fewer employees and with $500,000 or less in annual revenues will not be subject to lawsuits until Jan. 26, 1993. Larger companies will be subject to lawsuits on Jan. 26, 1992.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

From deep within the labyrinthine halls and dimly lighted rooms of Tio Pepe restaurant come the smells of some of the best Spanish food in Baltimore. But if you're in a wheelchair, don't expect to come in the front door, which is five steps down -- and might as well be miles away.

The restaurant, located on a historic block of buildings on Franklin Street in downtown Baltimore, can admit people who use wheelchairs via a back door near the kitchen and down a long hallway. But they'd better not drink too much sangria while they eat because the bathrooms aren't wheelchair-accessible.

The owner, Miguel Sanz, is well aware of these shortcomings. What is unclear to him, and thousands of other business owners around the country, is what it will cost to change it all.

One thing is certain: If Mr. Sanz has not made some very expensive changes to his establishment by Jan. 26, 1992, he could face substantial fines or legal action.

The reason: the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed by President Bush on July 26, 1990. The ADA is the most comprehensive legislation aimed at making life -- both in the workplace and in public establishments -- more livable for the 43 million Americans with disabilities.

Although final regulations for the public accommodations piece of the law were issued this summer, many building owners are complaining that too many questions about the law have been left unanswered.

And some experts fear that if the Justice Department, which is charged with enforcing the public accommodations side of the law, takes too hard a line, it could drive many businesses out of older neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore.

That's certainly not the intent of the law, according to Marian Vessels. As executive director of the Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, Ms. Vessels wants to send a conciliatory message to building owners and tenants. The law, she says, "is not designed to put a business out of business by making accommodations." In fact, she adds, it could bring businesses a whole new market of people with disabilities.

"People forget that someone like me, who's in a wheelchair, has economic value," Ms. Vessels says.

The first deadline for the law, which carries initial civil penalties of up to $50,000, is in January for businesses that employ 25 or more people. Businesses with 15 to 25 employees have until July 26, 1994, to meet the law's requirements.

The Justice Department plans to enforce the law on a complaint basis; that is, it will determine the details of what constitutes compliance on a case-by-case basis. The ADA exempts businesses that must incur undue economic burdens in order to comply.

Still, some fear that for older sections of cities like Baltimore, the law may be too onerous and ultimately may drive companies out of the city.

Although the specifications in the ADA are inches thick, they have one theme: to remove barriers that exclude people with handicaps. That can mean adding a ramp where stairs are a barrier; including a handicapped stall in the bathroom; changing door handles to accommodate someone without hands; or widening a checkout lane to accommodate a wheelchair.

Under the ADA, owners of buildings with fewer than three floors will not be required to make both floors accessible, except for shopping malls, health-care providers and transportation centers. Also exempted are buildings with less than 3,000 square feet per floor.

Maryland currently has a more stringent standard that applies to two-story buildings, unless each floor has less than 4,000 square feet. But James Hanna of Maryland's Building Codes Administration says that the state likely will bring itself into compliance with the ADA within the next year.

Maryland building standards to accommodate people with disabilities apply to buildings opened or substantially renovated since 1975.

For Tio Pepe, housed inside a historic building, the necessary changes could cost thousands of dollars.

VTC "It's going to be basically a hassle for all of us," Mr. Sanz says. He says he fully supports the intent of the law but has no idea how much he'll have to spend on renovations.

Robert Wood, a facilities management consultant, walked through the restaurant last week and came up with a ballpark estimate: from $25,000 to $50,000. And Mr. Wood says the Justice Department has told him that kind of money might not be considered an undue burden, depending on how much Tio Pepe brings in each year, and given the fact that the amount could be amortized over several decades.

Congress specifically rejected crafting a definition of "undue burden" because it feared that the courts would interpret the figure as a maximum amount to be spent, rather than a minimum, according to John Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

"Each case will be decided on its merits," he says.

That uncertainty doesn't sit well with building owners.

"Of course, we're concerned with making buildings as accessible as possible," says Al Heaver of Heaver Properties, a Lutherville property management company. "My reservation, if any, about the ADA" is the lack of specific guidelines, says Mr. Heaver, past president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Baltimore and a building owner himself. "Who's going to be the first [Justice Department] guinea pig? I'm certainly not anxious to be that. When they talk about fines and civil penalties -- good grief!"

Although Mr. Dunne of the Justice Department warns that a lack of knowledge of the ADA's requirements will be an ineffective defense come Jan. 26, he acknowledges that many questions remain unanswered. Will a ritzy restaurant be

considered in compliance if it simply offers home delivery? What if an ADA-required change threatens to put an owner out of compliance with local plumbing or building codes?

Ms. Vessels urges businesses simply to take a first step: Put in a ramp where possible. If there's a convenient back door, let handicapped people know about it with a sign at the front door. An Ellicott City dry cleaner she uses listens for her car horn, then someone walks outside to pick up her laundry.

Aside from the economic benefit of being able to serve individuals with disabilities, Ms. Vessels points out that there are substantial tax benefits for the costs of ADA-required renovations. Large businesses can deduct renovation costs of up to $15,000 a year, while small businesses can claim a direct tax credit for repairs that cost between $251 and $10,250.

Ms. Vessels says she hopes that the ADA will give those without handicaps some insight into the lives of people for whom a 4-inch curb "might as well be a 40-foot wall."

For information about the ADA, call the Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities at (301) 333-3098 (voice and TDD) or the Justice Department at (202) 514-0301 or (202) 514-0381 (TDD).

Opening the doors

The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law on July 26, 1990, bans discrimination based on disability. It contains provisions on public accommodations:

* Restaurants, hotels and retail stores may not discriminate against individuals with disabilities, effective Jan. 26, 1992. For new construction, the law takes effect on Jan. 26, 1993.

* Auxiliary aids and services must be provided to individuals with vision or hearing impairments or other individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would result.

* Physical barriers in existing facilities must be removed, if removal is readily achievable. If not, alternative methods of providing the services must be offered, if they are readily achievable.

* All new construction and alterations of facilities must be accessible.

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