Kimber Lanning, who owns a music shop in Phoenix, was surprised when she was served with papers earlier this year that alleged she had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act over signs marking van-accessible parking spaces.
"I had no idea that there was a height regulation on the signage," she says.
Hers were a couple of inches below the required five feet off the ground. Lanning quickly fixed the problem, but she still had to settle the case. Settlements are confidential, but the complaints often demand $5,000 or more to cover legal fees.
And this year, more than 1,500 Arizona businesses have been sued for this type of ADA parking lot violation. A nonprofit called Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) is behind the lawsuits.
"I am not saying that businesses are bad or evil. I think that they are simply consciously indifferent to the plight of the disabled," says attorney Peter Strojnik with AID. He says Congress knew enforcement would often fall on private attorneys, and there needs to be some compensation.
"Number one, they have to comply, and yes, they have to pay the costs, expenses and lawyer's fees just like the law says, but the fact is, they can't complain. They've known," he says.
Strojnik says his group targets parking lots because those are symptomatic of other accessibility issues. He says an investigator takes pictures, but the plaintiff doesn't always visit the business. For instance, one local man is listed on more than 500 cases.
A lot is still unknown about AID. It only recently became a nonprofit, and Strojnik says he makes no money; instead he says settlements help fund wheelchairs and other donations for those with disabilities.
Critics call it a scam.
"What we believe we see is using the Disabilities Act in a systematic way to enrich themselves," says Mark Brnovich, Arizona's attorney general, who recently intervened in the cases. The cases are brought under the federal and state version of the ADA. "When you have a bunch of frivolous lawsuits, I think it undermines the public's confidence in what is or isn't happening with the Disabilities Act."
Complaints should go to his office first, he says. AID, however, argues Brnovich's motivations are "political" – to serve the business community.
And some are ambivalent about the state's involvement at all. Phil Pangrazio of Ability 360, one of the country's largest centers for independent living. He doesn't like AID's aggressive approach.
"No, I am not in love with that strategy because it does create this kind of backlash where the business community gets upset about it," he says.
At the same time, Pangrazio worries the real victim of this bad PR could be the ADA itself — "modifying it, amending it in a way that really takes away the civil rights of people with disabilities," he says.
Sure enough, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake has introduced legislation that would give a business 120 days to correct a violation before being sued. Disability advocates warn that could take away the incentive to make the necessary changes unless you're caught. Pangrazio says, after all, 1 in 5 people has a disability.
"We don't think the law is the problem," he says.
And the width of a doorway or an entrance ramp can determine if a business is really open to everyone.
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