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Redrafting Handicap-Access Guidelines

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page E01

The rules governing how businesses must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act are about to get a tune-up, a prospect that has companies worried.

Advocates for people with disabilities say updated rules are overdue, but many businesses are alarmed at the prospect of making changes to facilities they already modified to comply with the old guidelines. A concern is how much more new construction will cost.

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In July, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Access Board) issued 289 pages of guidelines to make newly constructed or renovated facilities accessible to people with disabilities. The guidelines cover the height of light switches, the placement of plumbing fixtures, changes in elevators and alarm systems and the design of saunas, steam rooms and sales and service counters, to name a few.

The revisions will replace standards that have been in effect since 1991. Any business offering public accommodations, such as restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, doctors' offices, sports arenas, hospitals, schools, banks, gas stations and more, will be affected by the change in policy. State and local government facilities are also covered.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Access Board sets the guidelines that make public places accessible to those with disabilities. Then the Department of Justice issues a rule that implements the guidelines -- a process that is now underway, with comments to close on May 31.

In its notice of proposed rulemaking, the Justice Department asked about the applicability of the guidelines to existing facilities and how much business thinks they would cost to implement. It also asked for estimates on the benefits of the new guidelines.

It delved into specific questions: How should golf carts accommodate golfers with disabilities; how can movie theaters with stadium-type seating provide the same viewing experience to all patrons -- an area that has prompted many complaints from disability-rights organizations; are "transfer devices" used to accommodate people with disabilities on amusement park rides and how much does it cost; and how much would it cost to provide accessible vanity space in hotel bathrooms?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce already has formed a coalition of major trade associations to address the cost of the guidelines and to identify particular problems with them. Associations representing retailers, hotels and motels, restaurants and manufacturers have joined.

"Because the government has not done a good job in evaluating the economic impact, we have to do it for them," said Randel Johnson, the chamber's vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits. "Our goal is to demonstrate what these changes will cost the American economy. We suspect the data will show the changes are incredibly expensive."

Two major concerns for business are how the guidelines will affect existing facilities -- business would like previous modifications to be "grandfathered" -- and a new requirement that an employee's work area must be fully accessible (the requirement now is just a clear path to the work area).

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