The best way to avoid ADA Lawsuits is Compliance, not just a matter of Inches and Slopes

| Monday, April 4th, 2011 | Comments Off on The best way to avoid ADA Lawsuits is Compliance, not just a matter of Inches and Slopes

Much of the access tips available here: Accessible Accommodation Tips underscore the current fear that business owners have about their buildings not being ADA compliant.

ADA compliance goes far beyond walking through a building with a yardstick or a slope meter.

But even our lawmakers do not understand what’s at stake here.  If you’ve read this blog you should understand by now that the best way to avoid an ADA lawsuit is to become compliant.

What does this mean though, for a good or service to be compliant?  First the lawmakers:

The Bill in Maryland State Senate

Covered by the Maryland Reporter is an ongoing debate in the Maryland State Senate to provide an option for people who feel they have been discriminated against to be able to go to the Maryland Commission to seek injunctive relief rather than suing the place of business.

The state bill would be the first of its kind, if passed, but it would not remove the option for people to sue businesses under the ADA.  What’s the point?

Well, what’s interesting about this bill is that it assumes that the problems of the many ADA lawsuits stem from the lack of alternative channels for the disabled to complain about the business (if the business itself is unwilling to listen) without suing.   Of course, if the individuals suing are asking for money instead of injunctive relief, this bill won’t deter them.

But as an option it sounds good, except as the bulk of the article suggests by past individuals who fought against civil rights, more legislation isn’t really the key.  The root of the many ADA lawsuits don’t stem from a lack of alternate complaint — it’s the lack of compliance with the laws.

I have quoted a relevant portion below:

Several senators talked about lawsuits they knew about where disabled people and crafty attorneys tried to shut down or squeeze money out of establishments. Sen. David Brinkley, R – Frederick County, talked about county restaurants that had shut down because of onerous costs inflicted through lawsuits.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard County, said that the lawsuits brought by people with disabilities are a serious issue, referencing a news article a few years old that detailed some of them filed in Maryland. He added that the concerns about discrimination – like the kind Kelley described – are real, even in this day and age. However, he said, anything that’s more onerous for businesses to deal with could be problematic.

“We all want access, but the concern some of us have is the greed for riches,” Kittleman said.

Several senators said that a study couldn’t do much to stop the kinds of lawsuits that were described by their colleagues. Laws are already on the books to try to stop frivolous lawsuits, they argued. Bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore City, said the legislation just allows people who feel they were discriminated against to file complaints about it in the local courts closer to home.

“This bill is not new. It’s like moving the car from the driveway to the garage. You don’t change the car, and you don’t move houses,” Gladden said.

Peters’ amendment was rejected with a vote of 18-26.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County, recalled that provisions to specifically give protections from false claims were included in a Medicaid bill a couple years ago. He proposed inserting an amendment to do the same thing to protect small businesses from lawsuits filed by disabled people and their lawyers. The bill will be considered further on Friday.

You can read more about it here: http://marylandreporter.com/2011/04/01/blog-discrimination-stories-frivolous-lawsuits-dominate-senate-debate/

This debate brings up a larger issue. There are politicians who side with businesses on this issue, seeking to narrow the scope of the ADA. (To read more about what the current expanded scope of the ADA is, turn here: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines what a Disability is.)

The issue is that there just isn’t much ADA compliance in the public, period.

 

So what is the Point about ADA Compliance?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, even a little bit you’ve gleaned some understanding about what ADA compliance is about. Of course, if you are interested in ADA Tips and information on how to be compliant, I would invite you to go one of these links:

Accessible Accommodation Tips
Future ADA Seminars
Guest Articles

Otherwise you’re reading this column about awareness. And there’s much to be aware of and comply with.

The POINT of ADA COMPLIANCE is to provide equal access.  What’s on this blog is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg.

I do intend to keep posting more detailed information.  But to get started, we need some background.

For instance, suing places for their lack of physical ADA compliance is just a tip of the issue.

I’m not going to list all of the possible issues right now, but as a business becomes physically compliant, they still need to audit their own services in other to understand how they are not compliant in other ways.

For example, Senate Bill 3304 was passed last year in 2010.  You can take a look at the details here: Senate Bill 3304.  This bill highlights the need for communication to be provided for people with disabilities.  In other words, if you communicate anything to the public you’re probably assuming that they fit a certain mold, of being a certain age, speaking or reading a certain level of English comprehension… and are not either hearing or sight impaired.

Well, that’s changed.  Senate Bill 3304 is otherwise called 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, “COAT” has a long list of areas that need to be both closed captioned or available on hearing-impaired or seeing-impaired devices.  I have quoted the entire list of the different sections for you below.

Title I – Communications Access

Section 101:  Definitions.

  • Provides definitions for “advanced communications” (including interconnected and non-interconnected voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), electronic messaging, and interoperable video conferencing services); “consumer-generated media”; and “disability.”

Section 102:  Hearing aid compatibility.

  • Requires telephones used with the Internet to be hearing aid compatible.

Section 103:  Relay services.

  • Permits use of relay services to enable communication with anyone, not just between people with and without disabilities.  So, for example, a TTY user can use relay services to call a person who communicates in American Sign Language using a videophone.
  • Requires Internet-based voice communication service providers to contribute to the Interstate Relay Service Fund.

Section 104:  Access to advanced communications services and equipment.

  • Requires accessible advanced communications equipment and services, if achievable; and, if not achievable, then to make equipment and services compatible with devices commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if achievable.
  • Requires access to Internet services built-in to mobile telephone devices, like smart phones, if achievable.
  • Defines “achievable” as reasonable effort or expense, as determined by the FCC.
  • Improves enforcement; requires regular reports by the FCC to Congress; and requires an enforcement study by the Comptroller General.
  • Adds recordkeeping obligations for equipment manufacturers and service providers.
  • Requires a clearinghouse of information on accessible products and services, and public education and outreach.

Section 105:  Relay Services for Deaf-Blind Individuals.

  • Allocates up to $10 million per year from the Interstate Relay Service Fund for equipment used by individuals who are deaf-blind.

Section 106:  Emergency Access Advisory Committee

  • Establishes an Emergency Access Advisory Committee to recommend and for the FCC to adopt rules to achieve reliable and interoperable communications with future Internet-enabled emergency call centers.

Title II – Video Programming

Section 201:  Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee.

  • Establishes a Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee to make recommendations about closed captioning, video description, accessible emergency information, user interfaces, and video programming guides and menus.

Section 202:  Video description and closed captioning.

Video Description

  • After 1 year, restores FCC rules requiring 4 hours per week of video description on 9 television channels (top 4 broadcast networks and top 5 cable channels) in the top 25 most populated markets.
  • After 2 years, requires FCC to report to Congress on video description.
  • After 4 years, permits the FCC to increase video description to 7 hours per week on 9 television channels.
  • After 6 years, requires the FCC to apply the video description requirements to the top 60 most populated markets (not just the top 25 most populated markets).
  • After 9 years, requires the FCC to report to Congress on the need for additional markets to carry video description.
  • After 10 years, permits the FCC to expand video description to 10 new markets annually to achieve 100 percent nationwide coverage.

Emergency Information

  • Requires video programming owners, providers, and distributors to make emergency information accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision.

Closed Captioning

  • Requires captioned television programs to be captioned when delivered over the Internet.
  • Requires the FCC to grant or deny requests for exemption from the closed captioning rules within 12 months.

Section 203:  Closed captioning decoder and video description capability.

  • Requires devices designed to receive or play back video programming, using a picture screen of any size, to be capable of displaying closed captioning, delivering available video description, and making emergency information accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, except, devices with picture screens less than 13” must meet these requirements if achievable with reasonable effort or expense.
  • Requires devices designed to record video programming (such as DVRs) to enable the rendering or pass through of closed captions, video description, and emergency information, so viewers can turn the closed captions and video description on/off when played back on a screen of any size.

Section 204:  User interfaces on digital apparatus.

  • Requires devices designed to receive or play back video programming:
  1. to make controls of built-in functions accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have low vision, if achievable;
  2. to make controls of built-in functions accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have low vision through audio output;
  3. to provide access to built-in closed captioning and video description features through a mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon designated for activating the closed captioning or accessibility features.

Section 205:  Access to video programming guides and menus provided on navigation devices.

  • Requires cable/satellite set-top box on-screen text menus and guides to be audibly accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, if achievable.
  • To provide access to built-in closed captioning and video description features through a mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon designated for activating the closed captioning or accessibility features.

Section 206:  Definitions.

  • Provides definitions for Advisory Committee, Chairman, Commission, emergency information, Internet protocol, navigation device, video description, and video programming.

In looking ahead, you can see that the future requirements are going to catch many many many businesses off guard.  It might be a few years before those businesses themselves get sued.  And then the need and demand for these communication devices, (be it mobile hearing aids, readers, screens, and so on) will go up.  Although right now many businesses probably don’t care, thinking such a cost extraneous.

You can see this original page here: COAT page on S. 3304.  Their page is a great resource on what some of these devices will be.

Some of the issues about disabled communication have already caught on.  I link two of them below.

 

More ADA Compliance issues (non-physical access)

Issue #1:  Vegas Airport SUED for their Kiosks

So you’d think large companies with their “Chief Compliance Officers” and their vast resources would be able to catch on and anticipate their customers’ needs and avoid lawsuits by now.

This isn’t the case.

In this article, you can read about how a Baltimore based Blind Group Sued the Las Vegas Airport over their Ticket Kiosks.  (from The Daily Record)

The point is that this airport offered ticket kiosks to their customers as a service so that their customers could get their tickets self-check in and be on their way quicker.  By not upgrading the software on the kiosks so as to include some kind of voice-communication, they were denying this service to the blind.

In the article, upgrading the kiosks could be somewhere between 2k- 30k each.

As an airport, their income is well into the millions, so this represents only a fraction of their budget.  You can be sure you’ll need to do that now, otherwise it could (and will) happen again.

 

Issue #2 FedEx Field SUED for not providing Closed Captioning for Music

Most business owners hearing this would probably think this is a ridiculous issue.  But if you read the article, you’ll see that this football field had been previously sued for not including closed captioning on their screens back in 2003.  Their protest was that closed captioning  “would take up too much room on the screen” — which of course betrays their insensitivity and bias against those who do need it, lest they know not what’s going on.

So, seven years later and having installed the necessary equipment, you’d think the field would have learned their lesson.

What’s interesting about this case is that both sides are claiming that they are willing to cooperate but the other side was being difficult.  I quote the end of the article below so you can decide for yourself.

The court also agreed that song lyrics were an important part of the football experience, even though the plaintiffs had waited to raise that argument until filing summary judgment papers.

“By having access to the lyrics, plaintiffs have the opportunity to participate in the communal entertainment experience,” the court said in a 2-1 decision. “Without access to lyrics played, for example, during cheerleader dance routines and the halftime show, plaintiffs would not fully and equally experience the planned and synchronized promotional entertainment that large stadiums like FedEx Field provide.”

Washington Redskins General Counsel Dave Donovan said that his clients and the stadium owners already were complying with the decision. He said that they were providing, through e-mails, typed lyrics to songs performed by the cheerleaders. “Truth be told, this has only been about attorney’s fees. For years the plaintiffs’ firms managed to keep it alive,” Donovan said.

Joseph Espo, who represented the plaintiffs, said that his clients had tried to settle the case many times and that the attorney fees, which were in the “low six figures,” were a result of the defendants’ unwillingess to settle.

“It completely distorts reality to say that we are the ones who drove the fees,” Espo said. “The decision is a great day for deaf sports fans and reaffirms the obligation of the owners and operators of sports venues to make sure their product is accessible to all of their customers.”

Contact Leigh Jones at ljones@alm.com.

You can read more about how FedEx Field dealt with this lawsuit.  (From National Law Journal.)

Both articles underscores the need for places of public accommodation to understand their role in providing a consistency of availability to each and every of their customers to the best of their ability.

If you expect to take people’s money and provide them with an experience, a good or a service, you must best do your best to provide everyone equal access.

 

The ADA Compliance Takeaway

At this point, you should begin to understand what ‘accessiblity’ means.

This is a far cry from the standard ‘I can fit a wheelchair through my door therefore I am ADA compliant’.

ADA Compliance means that you’ve taken the time and effort to consider and provide equal access to each customer who comes through your door.  ADA Compliance means taking the time and money to hire ADA Experts and implemented the changes they’ve recommended, not just in terms of your physical site, but also how you do business and communicate with your customers.

You can start by checking out the California Relay Service so you can at least talk to customers on the phone whom you may have trouble understanding.  It’s a free service by the state of California available to have a communication assistant coordinate from text to speech, speech to speech, speech to text, and so on.  Please take a look, and train your receptionist on it too!

For additional questions and comments, you can email me at help@accesssolutionllc.com or call 866 982 3212.

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