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Department Stores Settle Disability Lawsuit

Hecht's, Lord & Taylor Will Modify Layouts to Improve Access for Wheelchairs

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page E02

Hecht's and Lord & Taylor agreed to widen pathways between clothing racks, lower some cash registers and remove barriers to fitting rooms to make their stores more accessible to people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices, settling a four-year-old lawsuit filed on behalf of disabled Washington area shoppers.

Eight shoppers sued the chains' parent company, May Department Stores Co., in 2001 under the Americans with Disabilities Act, accusing the chains of creating "an inescapably dismal and frustrating shopping experience."

Video: The Washington Post's Michael Barbaro discusses the disability lawsuit which has led two local stores to modify their layouts to improve wheelchair accessibility.

Under the settlement announced yesterday, the two department stores will begin immediately to change the layout of 15 stores in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Most pathways will be widened to at least 32 inches, and product fixtures, such as racks and tables, will be redesigned so products are easier to reach. May admitted no wrongdoing in the suit.

"The changes will be very noticeable, even to those of us who are not looking for them," said Elaine Gardner, an attorney at the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who worked on the case.

The lawsuit was filed after the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington received a high volume of complaints about the two chains, Gardner said. Shoppers found pathways throughout the stores blocked by boxes and empty sales racks, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. They encountered bathroom stalls and dressing rooms that were too small to enter. And they found product displays designed with little regard for passing wheelchairs.

In one case, a Lord & Taylor shopper using a wheelchair became entangled in display racks and merchandise, which then fell and injured her, according to the lawsuit. Lawyers in the case said such problems became most pronounced during the holidays, when the stores cluttered their aisles with extra merchandise and decorations.

Silver Spring resident Muriel Aikens-Arnold, a plaintiff in the case, yesterday called the verdict a victory for the region's disabled. The administrative judge, who has multiple sclerosis, said she could not shop at Hecht's or Lord & Taylor without constantly asking sales people to retrieve products either out of her reach or blocked by sales fixtures.

"The staff was nice about it, but it's frustrating when, as a shopper, I cannot explore the store like everyone else," she said.

May spokeswoman Sharon Bateman declined to comment yesterday, as did a spokeswoman for Hecht's. In a statement, the chairmen of Hecht's and Lord & Taylor said: "Hecht's and Lord & Taylor are committed to providing every customer with full access to the merchandise and services offered in our stores."

The settlement does not require the chains to make all of their merchandise accessible to disabled shoppers. For example, the stores must provide access to between 75 and 85 percent of clothing racks, merchandise tables and other displays. Only 20 percent of cash registers must be accessible.

But Gardner said the settlement "goes very far toward getting disabled shoppers to all the merchandise."

"You may not be able to access size 8 dresses, for example, but you can at least see there are size 8 dresses there," she said. "Visual access is very important."

Representatives from May and the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington will spot-check the stores' progress in meeting the settlement's requirements every year, Gardner said.

Department stores have been the subject of dozens of lawsuits filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company