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Access update

by   JUDY HODGSON


In early March the Journal was the first to report about a Eureka attorney who was building up a lucrative practice by suing businesses and institutions on behalf of his clients under Americans with Disabilities Act. There is virtually no defense against these lawsuits once they are filed. The business owner pays to correct deficiencies, pays both attorneys and pays the person filing the lawsuit. There was one case that cost a business owner who chose to fight more than $200,000 before he gave up. [See Access & Dollars, cover story, March 8, 2001]

That story touched off a firestorm of anger -- not to mention fear -- by businesses large and small. Some businesses moved quickly to begin modifications in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit. Others took a wait-and-see position. In the meantime, more lawsuits have been filed, including one against the Victorian Inn in Ferndale.

Last Friday the Eureka Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center sponsored a seminar at the Adorni Center that had a turnout of about 100; about half were business owners. Here is some of what we learned:

Does the ADA apply to all businesses? Any one open to the public for any reason. Aren't historic buildings exempt? The short answer is no. Aren't old buildings OK under a "grandfather" clause? No. Is the business owner or the landlord responsible for eliminating barriers for those with disabilities? Both.

Will the government modify the ADA law to add a "warning" like a 90-day fix-it order from a building department? Chances are no -- and there's a reason. It is a civil rights issue, a matter of discrimination. If you think about it, we did not wait until businesses were "notified" one by one that they must accommodate racial minorities. In one swoop, a specific type of discrimination was deemed illegal.

What can we do? Change our attitude, for one. Get past the anger and think in terms of civil rights. The federal government doesn't really want us all to go out of business. But the law insists we do what is financially "readily achievable," starting with handicapped parking, access from the street and your front door knob.

For more information, visit the website of the California Department of Rehabilitation at www.rehab.ca.gov/. Humboldt Access Project provides informal assistance and may be reached at 445-8404. And the Eureka Chamber, 442-3738, has a list of other resources available.


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