Disability access lacking at many stores
When Lisa Tarricone rolled down Main Street in Cold Spring in her wheelchair recently, she became upset at how few stores she could access.
“It’s discrimination,” said Tarricone, a Fishkill resident who is executive director of Taconic Resources for Independence, which advocates for the disabled in Dutchess County. “Would you discriminate against someone who is of color? It’s the same issue. We are invisible.”
Tarricone has been irritated on many Main Streets; she said small businesses in Cold Spring and Beacon are like many others in the historic villages of the Hudson Valley, in the widespread failure to provide access to the disabled as required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA, enacted in 1990 by the first President George Bush, requires that any business open to the public, including retail stores and restaurants, provide “reasonable accommodations” for the disabled, including wheelchair users. Among other requirements, this typically means providing a ramp if the entrance is not at sidewalk level.
A survey by The Current found that 42 percent of 66 storefronts on Main Street in Cold Spring (including the newspaper’s office) are inaccessible to wheelchair users. In Beacon, 41 percent of 214 storefronts are inaccessible. Usually the problem is a step or two acting as a barrier.
Despite a popular conception, renting or owning a building that dates from before the ADA does not exempt or “grandfather” businesses open to the public. Instead, they must do whatever is “readily achievable” to remove barriers, explained Michael Hellmann, a disability rights attorney based in Hartsdale.
Many business owners fail to provide access, he said, in part because there is no enforcement. The U.S. Department of Justice could enforce the ADA but lacks the resources to pursue millions of noncompliant small businesses, said Michelle Uzeta, deputy legal director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, based in Washington, D.C. Often a building is updated only when it is built or being renovated, when it must comply with state building codes, which require disability access.
At the local level, “the village cannot force business owners to make their entrances ADA-compliant,” noted Eliza Starbuck, a Cold Spring trustee who owns Flowercup Wine at 82 Main St. Chris White, the Beacon city administrator, added: “We’re not making people change elevations to building entrances.”
The lack of enforcement has led many people to dismiss the ADA as toothless, said Uzeta. Disabled individuals can bring federal lawsuits citing the law, but that’s uncommon. “The average person with a disability doesn’t have the resources or strength to file a lawsuit,” she said.
As a result, enforcement sometimes falls to self-appointed “civil-rights testers” who identify small businesses that are out of compliance. That’s what happened in Acheson Hotels, LLC. v. Laufer, a case decided last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. Deborah Laufer, a Florida resident who uses a wheelchair, filed more than 600 federal lawsuits against small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts that failed to say on their websites if they were accessible to the disabled.
The issue before the court was not the validity of the allegations but whether Laufer could sue even if she never intended to stay at the hotels. The court last week left the issue unresolved, dismissing it on technical grounds.
What disabilities are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act?
All disabilities, mental or physical, temporary or permanent, severe or mild.
Who must provide access?
Any person who owns, leases or operates a place of public accommodation, including most places of lodging, recreation, transportation, education and dining, stores, care providers and places of public displays.
Are any businesses open to the public exempt?
No. All businesses must remove barriers when it is “readily achievable,” meaning compliance is “easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense.”
Are historic properties exempt?
No. Historic properties are required to remove barriers to access where it is readily achievable and must comply with the ADA’s alteration requirements to the “maximum extent feasible.”
Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Another reason for non-compliance is architectural challenges. Installing ADA-compliant ramps can be difficult, said Justin Kacur, a Cold Spring architect. “It’s all dependent on the building,” he said. “Every foot of elevation requires 12 feet of ramp. Where are you going to put that ramp?”
Two years ago, the length of an ADA-compliant ramp complicated plans for the Cro’ Nest Wine Bar in Cold Spring when its owners planned to open in a renovated storefront at 15 Main St. The required length would have put the end of the ramp on the sidewalk, which is village property. The conflict was resolved when New York State approved an exemption to the building code that allowed the ramp to be slightly steeper and shorter.
Stable, portable ramps are OK when other options aren’t “readily achievable,” said Uzeta. Ideally, they should have railings and a non-slip surface.
Flowercup has a step that blocks wheelchair users. When Tarricone arrived outside during a visit, Starbuck immediately brought out a small plastic ramp. Tarricone said she appreciated that but urged Starbuck to consider a sturdier, foldable “suitcase ramp,” readily available on Amazon and other sites. (The Current, which has a 4-inch-high step, purchased a 4-foot suitcase ramp this week for $125.)
While local officials cannot compel businesses to comply with the ADA, they can enforce the state building code, said Hellmann, the Hartsdale lawyer. As an example, the new Edgewater apartments in Beacon provide access for wheelchair users, said White, the city administrator. In Cold Spring, in addition to the wine bar, Starbuck said that local officials oversaw wheelchair access to the building that houses The Endless Skein when it was constructed in 2018.
Local officials said they are improving access in other ways. White said Beacon has replaced 60 sidewalk curb ramps over the last three years and Starbuck noted that Cold Spring has improved sidewalk ramps, added ADA-compliant parking and exempted cars with disability stickers from upcoming restrictions.
But she acknowledged there is work to do. “We are a teeny-tiny village with a budget that is tiny and we don’t have the funds to make the entire village ADA-compliant,” said Starbuck, adding that she believes many business owners fail to comply only because it’s not “on their radar. With any issue where it’s serving a smaller portion of the community, it becomes a low priority, which is absolutely unfair.”
During her visit to the Highlands, Tarricone said she would like to see access become a priority. “If you want to include people with disabilities and not discriminate, you can do that,” she said. “You can work with your business community toward compliance, instead of saying it is up to them.”
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