When Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) experts planned a training session last year in Greenville for local governments and contractors, ADA trainer Sandy Hanebrink of Anderson booked space at Aloft Greenville Downtown — a brand-new hotel at the time.
Soon after Hanebrink arrived she discovered the new city garage that led to the hotel was inaccessible for people in a wheelchair. The garage’s height was too short: Instead of 8 feet, 2 inches, it was 7 feet tall. Some vans with wheelchair lifts need the extra foot of height. Also, Hanebrink, who is a quadriplegic, could not get from the parking space into the hotel because it was too steep.
Inside the hotel, she found other ADA problems, as well.
“We thought that because it was brand-new, surely it would have been compliant. But it wasn’t,” says Hanebrink, executive director of Touch the Future, an Anderson nonprofit that provides ADA training, consulting, and assistive technology for people with disabilities.
Hanebrink’s experience illustrates how tricky it can be for businesses to remain compliant with ADA, which is a civil rights law passed in 1990. Sometimes a business owner can renovate or construct a new building, designed by architects and built by contractors — all of whom are presumably knowledgeable about the law. The building could be inspected by coding officials and open for business, and all seems fine until someone calls or files a formal ADA complaint or lawsuit.
“All of a sudden, you could find it’s not compliant, three years from now when someone sues over an ADA violation that the architect signed off on and the code people passed. There are huge pitfalls in the system,” says Mike Teachey, lead facilitator of Greenville CAN, which advocates for people with disabilities.
It’s up to companies to make sure their buildings are ADA-compliant. The smartest thing they could do is visit ada.gov to educate themselves about the law, Teachey says. “And don’t just assume that because someone signed off on it that everything is okay.”
Local building code officials inspect buildings for code compliance, not for compliance with federal laws like the ADA, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, says Mark Teal, risk manager and ADA coordinator for the City of Greenville.
“One thing that has improved dramatically over the years is that building codes are 98 to 99 percent parallel to what ADA requirements are. So when buildings are inspected for building and code compliance, they are inspected for codes that mirror ADA requirements,” Teal says.
It’s not foolproof, as the city garage mistake demonstrates.
When Hanebrink contacted Aloft and the city over the garage’s accessibility problems, both parties sought to make corrections.
Although the garage was designed to be ADA compliant, some additional work was done to meet specifications, Teal says.
Aloft Downtown Greenville also quickly responded to Hanebrink’s feedback, including her observation that the hotel’s bar had no area low enough for someone in a wheelchair.
According to McKibbon Hospitality, which owns Aloft, the company takes ADA compliance very seriously.
“Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen compliance issues at Aloft Greenville Downtown that were identified right after the opening. Our team reacted quickly and corrected the discrepancies immediately,” said McKibbon Hospitality Vice President of Development Erik Rowen, who responded to questions via email.
The hotel’s ADA-compliant updates included adding a table at the end of the bar for wheelchair service.
Typically, ADA issues are resolved the way Hanebrink handled it. Someone knowledgeable about the ADA lets the business owner or city know of a problem, and the business or city official can fix it. Some people might file a formal complaint with the federal ADA office, and still others might file a lawsuit, but the latter is rare, Teal says.
“I have heard of no local lawsuits about ADA in the city in the last couple of years,” he says.
Business owners who are renovating old facilities or building new ones need to think about the long-term consequences of being non-ADA compliant, Hanebrink and Teachey say.
These include both risk of a lawsuit and the loss of business. And it’s the right thing to do, Hanebrink says.
“Businesses have an obligation to provide equal access to their goods and services to people with disabilities, and it’s not optional,” Hanebrink says. “I would think you’d want to include everyone in your community.”
There are tax credits for businesses to make properties accessible. And the cost of being compliant is less than the cost of handling an ADA lawsuit, she says.
While lawsuits are not common, they might increase as the ADA approaches its 30th anniversary. Many young adults are what Hanebrink calls the “ADA generation,” who have grown up with the law and who expect buildings and companies to be ADA-compliant. If they feel something is wrong, they’ll file a federal complaint or sue, she says.
“All of these ADA issues are ticking time bombs that you don’t know when or where they’ll go off,” Teachey says.
Plus, companies that increase accessibility benefit by expanding their customer base. “If you don’t make it accessible, there are customers who will never go into your business,” Teachey says.