A new law that went into effect Jan. 26 with relatively little notice could have a major impact on a number of small firms. It is the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, but many attorneys call it the Lawyers' Relief Act because of the litigation they anticipate will result. We should all take note because the law affects business owners, employees and customers.
The intent of this law is to gradually force every business to make sure physically handicapped people have access. This means the removal of all physical barriers.
As of January, the law applies to most public access areas such as government buildings and restaurants. As of July the law will require firms with 25 employees or more to accommodate handicapped workers or applicants. By 1994 that requirement will extend to firms with more than 15 employees as well.
Disabled: Disabled is defined as anyone with an impairment that limits at least one major life activity. It is estimated that 43 million Americans fall into this category.
Court: Under the law, disabled people will be able to sue your company if physical barriers are not removed. These could include your customer -- and after July -- employees or job applicants at firms with 25 workers or more.
The disabled person will not be awarded any money except to cover legal expenses; however, if you lose the case, you will be forced by the court to remove the barriers. In addition, the company can be fined $50 million for the first offense, or, up to $100 million for the second.
Impact: According to the Robert Wood Co., a facility management planning company in Columbia, the law applies to all types of companies. The list includes hotels, bed and breakfasts with more than five guest rooms, restaurants, theaters, grocery stores, banks, cleaners, transportation areas, parks, schools, day-care centers, historic properties, athletic facilities and all employers. Churches are exempt.
According to Mr. Wood, there are three areas of barriers -- external areas (sidewalks and parking lots), entrance areas (this includes everything which takes the person up to the point of a sale ) and finally, the bathrooms. It could mean the installation of receding curbs, wider doorways, special wheelchair lifts, etc.
What happens if the widening of the doorway means the removal of a support beam? You do not have to widen such a door, since anything which requires a major structural change is exempt.
Most of the alterations are costly. Each firm should have a plan to remove the barriers and have the costs included in the firm's financial plan. If a disabled person or a special-interest group takes your company to court, the court will review this plan to determine if it is reasonable.
Implementation: Note, there are no specific implementation guidelines. If a disabled person feels that you are not making changes fast enough, they can simply file a suit. The court might agree with them and slap your business with a fine.
What if you simply cannot afford the changes? If your firm has slim profits or is losing money, then the court may permit you to stretch renovations over many years. Alternatively, you could make some immediate lower-cost accommodations. For instance, you are an engineer and a prospective client can not walk up your front steps. You cannot afford to install a wheelchair lift. The only option is to go to the client's home or office, which is an acceptable accommodation under the law.
Grocery stores will not have it so easy. Ultimately they may have to figure out how a wheelchair-bound person can reach groceries on a high shelf. The industry's fear is that the grocer will have to provide a personal shopper, or helper, at the store's expense. An acceptable accommodation might be for the disabled person to "call in" their order and "drive thru" to pick it up.
Your lease: If you lease space, the landlord might "hit you up" for the renovations under the area of "maintenance and building expense." Be sure any new space into which you move already meets the new requirements and that this is noted in the lease. For those buildings that do not meet the requirements, negotiate the financial impact on your lease prior to signing a contract.
Getting help: There are a couple of organizations that can help firms understand how to follow the spirit of this law. Ms. Elizabeth Jones is director of the Maryland Disabilities Law Center (MDLC) in Baltimore (phone: 410/235-4700). MDLC is an independent agency authorized to help protect the rights of the disabled, but it will assist businesses by providing them with basic information on the law. The center will also make referrals to firms that specialize in the barrier-removal field.
A second organization is in Washington. The Mental Health Law Project (phone: 202 467-5730) offers similar services to businesses who hire mentally disabled people or who have this type of clientele.
The Bottom Line: This is serious stuff. If a barrier-removal plan is not in place and implemented, a corporate officer may be held personally liable.
Patrick Rossello, president of The Business Consulting Group in Towson, serves on a number of local boards and is on the faculty of Loyola College. Send questions or suggested topics to him c/o Money At Work, The Evening Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.