AKRON-Although it affects more than one in two retail tire dealerships, many owners are still only vaguely aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requiring U.S. businesses to make special accommodations for handicapped customers and employees. This, however, is likely to change-and perhaps sooner than some dealers may anticipate, according to consultant Jack T. Picton of Clearwater, Fla., who advises dealerships and other retail businesses on how to comply with ADA requirements.
``The ADA...pot is boiling,'' said Mr. Picton, ``and it will keep on boiling until it spills over into every retail tire dealership in the country.''
Mr. Picton pointed out that the U.S. Department of Justice has issued a warning to businesses that the education phase for compliance with the ADA is over and enforcement has begun.
Technically, all U.S. businesses having 25 or more employees have been subject to the requirements of the ADA since 1990, when it was signed into law as a means of eradicating job and business discrimination against the handicapped.
However, as of July 1 of this year, the law was extended to include companies with as few as 15 employees. This includes more than one in two tire dealerships, according to the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association, which also has put together a kit to help its members comply.
Failure to comply can open businesses to potential lawsuits filed by private citizens or the Department of Justice and penalties of up to $50,000 for the first violation and $100,000 for subsequent ones. Moreover, that could be just the beginning, Mr. Picton said.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department settled one of the first complaints filed under the ADA by requiring nearly $3 million in modifications to New York City's Empire State Building.
Under that agreement, ramps will be added, bathrooms redesigned, ticket counters lowered, stairs removed and even walls modified so that visitors in wheelchairs are able to reach the building's 86th-floor observation deck.
``This law is serious business,'' warned Mr. Picton. Now is the time for dealers and other businesses to address the problem-not wait until a situation occurs and they are forced to defend their position of non-compliance in court.
The law is straightforward in its intent, he explained. In effect, it tells U.S. businesses to:
Create a path of travel for the disabled. Let them do business with you like everyone else;
Give them a place to park;
Fix doors so people in wheel chairs can get in;
Give them bathrooms they can use;
Install a cashier counter of the proper height for a person in a wheel chair;
Put up signs for the seeing- and hearing-impaired;
Open doors to the estimated 43 million disabled individuals in the U.S.-which is simply good business, noted Mr. Picton.
Unfortunately, he said, the government has done a terrible job of telling business owners what they must do and when, in order to be in compliance with the law.
Mr. Picton's firm, American Compliance Signage Inc., of Clearwater, Fla., markets signs and other materials intended to meet ADA requirements. Not long ago, he completed an ADA compliance survey and installed the required raised-letter and braille signs at all 59 locations of Don Olson Tire and Auto Centers, which also is based in Clearwater.
Taking the compliance survey and installing the required signage by no means fulfills all of a dealership's responsibilities under the new law, he explained.
Tire dealerships also must address all the other aspects of the law, such as meeting special requirements for restrooms.
However, by carrying out these two tasks, he said, Don Olson Tire took its first step toward complying and, therefore, is considered to be in an ``ADA compliance mode.'' And the fact that a company has done something to comply with the law could provide valuable leverage should it ever be sued for non-compliance, he contended.
Mr. Picton suggested dealers prepare a written plan for eventually bringing all their retail locations into 100-percent ADA compliance. Doing so demonstrates that a company has a plan for total compliance in place-even though completion may require several years, he explained.