Americans With Disabilities Act
The Americans With Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. One of its provisions is that individuals with disabilities can't be discriminated against in regards to their access to "public accommodations." The law's definition of a public accommodations includes hotels, stores, recreation facilities, transportation facilities, schools, restaurants and medical facilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that any building that is subject to the act and that was built since 1992 needs to comply with the "ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities." The 580-page book of construction standards includes the ADA's requirements for wheelchair ramps. Most buildings built before the ADA took effect in 1992 don't have to be built according the the entire Accessibility Guidelines. But owners of such buildings are responsible for removing architectural barriers to allow access for disabled people.
Requirements for Wheelchair Ramps
The ADA Accessibility Guidelines define a ramp as any part of a wheelchair-accessible route to a building with a slope greater than 1 inch of rise for every 20 inches of length. The guidelines require that ramps be constructed with the least possible degree of slope. The maximum rise allowed for a ramp is 30 inches. In new construction, ramps can rise at no more than the rate of 1 inch or rise for every 12 inches of run. For ramps over curbs and for ramps built as add-ons to older buildings, steeper ramps are allowed if there is not enough space to build a ramp as gradual as 1:12. In those cases, ramps as steep as 1:10 are allowed for 6 inches of rise and 1:8 are allowed for 3 inches of rise. Ramps must be built with at least 36 inches of clear space in width. Landings must be just as wide and at least 60 inches long. If a wheelchair path changes direction at the landing then the landing must be at least 60 inches wide by 60 inches long. Ramps that rise more than 6 inches or that are longer than 72 inches must have handrails.
Installing wheelchair ramps, especially in older buildings, can be an expensive proposition. The problem was illustrated by a 2008 political controversy in San Francisco. The city's Board of Supervisors received an estimate of more than $1 million to install a ramp and lower a dais in the Board Chambers of San Francisco's historic City Hall building to bring it into compliance with the ADA, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. City contracting rules and requirements to preserve historic elements of the room added to the cost. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted against installing the ramp and were threatened with a lawsuit by a supervisor who uses a wheelchair.
Lawsuits Over Wheelchair Ramps
The wheelchair ramp requirements are difficult to meet for many small business owners, especially those in older buildings. This is said to have put many at risk of being sued. Plaintiff's attorney Thomas Frankovich told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008 that he had filed between 1,500 and 1,800 lawsuits under ADA accessibility laws since 1994. Actor Clint Eastwood was served with a lawsuit in 2000 over wheelchair accessibility to a hotel he owned in Carmel, Calif. Since then, he has campaigned for changes to the ADA that would give small business owners of period of time to come into compliance with the law once they were notified of a violation.
How Small Business Owners Can Protect Themselves
When buying or building a shop or work facility, business owners should thoroughly question the construction and real estate professionals they are working with to make sure that their buildings comply with the ADA. Then, business owners should do their own homework and make sure the advice they receive about the ADA is accurate. ADA consultant Kim Blackseth told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008 that many small business owners are left vulnerable to ADA lawsuits by bad advice from architects, contractors and building inspectors.