Designing multi-site facilities to be more accessible for persons with disabilities isn’t just a legal obligation, it’s also good for business.
By Regina Ludes
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million American adults, or about one in four (26%), live with some form of disability. With so many Americans affected by disability, accessibility has become a necessary element in facility design.
“Every manager wants their store to be attractive and welcoming to clients,” said Evan Piper, President of Piper Construction and Facility Maintenance, Inc. “Since people with disabilities account for some of their business and revenue, FMs need to make sure their stores are accessible and welcoming.” The issue of ADA compliance hits close to home to Piper, who uses a wheelchair, the result of injuries suffered in a 2001 plane crash.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in July 1990 to protect persons with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of public life including education, employment, housing, transportation and access to public buildings. While the law isn’t perfect and has been amended on several occasions, it has prompted businesses to redesign their spaces for improved accommodation. By educating themselves on ADA guidelines, facilities managers can make it part of their routine operations so that their spaces are more accessible and appealing to visitors of all ages and abilities.
Common Areas for Compliance
The most common target areas for ADA compliance are typically parking lots and facility entrances, Piper said. For example, are some parking spaces designated for persons with disabilities? Are entrance doors wide enough for wheelchair access? Is there braille below signage and elevator buttons for the visually impaired?
Bathrooms and fitting rooms are also targets. Bathrooms should be equipped with grab bars, ADA-height sinks and wider doorways. They should also provide a proper turning radius for wheelchairs. Fitting rooms should be larger for maneuvering, have wider doors and lower hooks to hang clothes.
Piper said some companies, especially smaller ones, may have difficulty complying due to budget constraints. However, FMs should consider the higher price they’d pay for corrective work and legal fees in the event of a lawsuit.
There may also be a lack of awareness about ADA guidelines. “FMs either don’t realize that they’re out of compliance or not updated on current requirements,” Piper said.
If FMs aren’t sure if they are in compliance, Piper advised hiring an ADA expert to assess their sites. Based on the expert’s recommendations, they can create a plan and budget to make those areas compliant. “It’s always better to work on your own timeline than someone else’s,” Piper said.
The Penalty for Non-Compliance
If facilities aren’t ADA compliant, FMs can be open to lawsuits and exorbitant costs associated with them. “If a lawsuit is brought against the facility, the company could be responsible for the plaintiff’s legal fees as well as their own,” Piper said. Companies could also be forced into a higher and more stringent standard of compliance.
FMs also face potential shut down, said Joel Elsea, Director of Facilities for Curo Financial Technologies Corp. “If you’re not following the proper process for ADA compliance or have the right documentation, there’s the potential of being shut down. The process to address such complaints can be time consuming and take you away from your business,” he said.
Elsea’s department oversees 750 lending locations in the U.S. and Canada. While Curo’s construction department handles ADA compliance issues at the front end during building and renovation, once they’re constructed, Elsea’s department manages these sites, including addressing any complaints that may occur. Complaints rarely have come up at their locations, and his operations teams have standard procedures in place for handling them when they do occur.
Piper cautioned FMs to protect themselves so they don’t become targets of the ADA “trap.” The trap is intentionally set by individuals or groups to cause legal trouble for property owners or tenants that are not ADA compliant, Piper explained.
“These groups hire ADA experts who seek out non-compliant properties, then hire a person with a disability who pretends to have an issue with access. Then, the group files a lawsuit on behalf of that person. It’s an easy cash grab,” Piper explained. “Unfortunately, if the facility is truly out of compliance, there’s nothing FMs can do to fight it.”
New Construction Concerns
Many problems with ADA compliance can arise and should be resolved during construction or renovation. Not everyone involved with a project or who reviews the plans will be familiar with ADA compliance requirements, Piper explained.
He recalled one big box retailer that was sued for noncompliance because no one on the project team was familiar with the guidelines and noticed that the architect’s plans did not fully account for ADA compliance. By planning for ADA compliance and building it into their project plans, facilities can avoid any surprises when the project is completed.
Each Curo location is designed differently, which presents its own challenges. Some are standalone buildings, while others are located in strip malls or within office buildings. “Sometimes the location isn’t ideal, and you have to adjust the plans to make the facility more ADA compliant. It’s easier to address these problems up front in the construction phase than fix it on the back end,” Elsea said.
To ensure these issues don’t crop up, Elsea said Curo has developed long-term relationships with suppliers who don’t have a history of ADA violations. When considering a new supplier, one key question is asked of them: Are there any specific requirements needed for this location that will make it ADA compliant? “If we become aware of any violations, we’ll factor that into our decision whether to use them in the future,” Elsea said.
The most important thing FMs can do to become compliant is to learn as much as possible about ADA guidelines through webinars, online courses and conference workshops.
“When it becomes part of what you think about every day, then the next time you have a facility maintenance upgrade, you can be sure you are doing it properly under the ADA guidelines,” Piper said.