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Educate to advance ADA program

Tim Leslie

Fifteen years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark legislation affirmed and protected the right of millions of Americans with disabilities to full and equal access to all public facilities.

In addition to other watershed protections for people with disabilities, the ADA set minimum standards for accessibility to public facilities like hotels, restaurants and retail stores. In doing so, the ADA has also helped the public understand that disabilities do not diminish a person’s right to live a full life.

Yet while access to public accommodations has improved over the past decade and a half, implementation of the ADA in California has not always met expectations.

Some facilities still do not comply with access laws. This adds persistent difficulties to the daily experience of people who must overcome great challenges, even under the best conditions. It also frustrates those who view the enduring barriers to access as evidence of a lack of concern for their needs and ultimately as a form of continued segregation.

To demand access, some advocates have turned to the only option they believe will generate results – lawsuits. This has stirred frustrations in response, especially from small business owners who actively work to be fully accessible, yet still find them themselves facing costly lawsuits.

It is not hard to see why good people on both sides of this situation could become aggravated. Imagine mortgaging your home to fulfill your life’s dream of owning a hobby shop, and then facing a potentially bankrupting lawsuit over your countertop being a centimeter too high. On the other hand, try to conceive of being unable to get out of your wheelchair to use the toilet because an inexpensive yet crucial grab bar was missing.

The intricacies of an issue this complex and emotionally charged will not be easily resolved. However, while I believe that we must ultimately work in the Legislature to make the ADA more effective, there is a way right now for us to make tremendous progress without great controversy or cost. We can significantly increase access and diminish lawsuits simply by helping business better understand their responsibilities and rights under the ADA.

Many well-meaning small business owners simply do not know what is expected of them under the ADA. In addition, even those who do recognize their responsibilities often do not know what that they must do to become fully compliant with the law. Conflicts between state and federal access laws, disagreement among access experts over what constitutes compliance, and a failure by the government to adequately promote and support access laws make understanding the ADA all the more difficult.

That is why I have authored ACR 29 in the Legislature to designate July as Access Awareness Month. ACR 29 celebrates the 15th anniversary of the ADA and promotes ever-increasing access for people with disabilities. During this month, advocates for people with disabilities and I have also worked with trade organizations like the California Restaurant Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses to help businesses understand their role in providing equal access under the ADA.

At the signing of the ADA in 1990, then-President Bush stated, “(Businesses) have in (their) hands the key to the success of this act, for (they) can unlock a splendid resource of untapped human potential that, when freed, will enrich us all.”

Businesses are indeed on the front lines of ensuring that every individual has equal access to full participation in our society. And as they come to better understand their responsibilities in this role, business owners will be able to benefit not only people with disabilities, but all of society as well.

California benefits when everyone is able to participate fully – businesses prosper, taxpayers prosper, and our communities prosper. But without access-educated businesses, the Americans with Disabilities Act simply does not work. By helping businesses understand the rights, duties and obligations under the ADA, we can make California accessible for all.

– Tim Leslie is Dean of the California Legislature and represents the 4th Assembly District. For more information on complying with the ADA, contact Kevin O’Neill at (916) 319-2004.


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