Twenty one years after federal accessibility standards took effect, an Austin group said businesses are still non-compliant. Among other things, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates buildings and public transportation be wheelchair accessible and parking spaces be reserved for those with disabilities.
David Wittie gets everywhere on four wheels by using his wheelchair. Ironically, parts of Austin, including Sixth Street, are difficult for him to enjoy. The problem is as simple as seven inches, which is the height of the front step on some older buildings.
"Pete's Piano Bar has a wonderful entrance now,” Wittie said. “In 1997, it did not."
That change followed a lawsuit filed by ADAPT of Texas. The group pushes for access to all public places for everyone.
Wittie said the Museum of the Weird installed a wood ramp over its front step at the request of ADAPT. But just next door, Cheers bar is a place Wittie cannot visit because he can't get in the front door. ADAPT is now suing Cheers and 14 other businesses with similar issues.
“To enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act, to ensure that business owners are mature in their response and to look for ways to make their businesses accessible,” Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Joseph Berra said.
The ADA says no building is grandfathered in. Even if it was built in the 1870s, getting customers in the front door is the first step to take. Steve Simon manages several buildings downtown and disagrees.
“To one day force a business to upgrade their whole space because somebody can't get in is not the businesses' fault,” he said. “There's no law to require somebody to do that.”
Simon cited a loophole created by Texas Accessibility Standards, which states business owners are only compelled to make changes if they spend $50,000 on building renovations. ADAPT members hope lawsuits will compel the property owners to act regardless, and Chris Schexnayder wants to make sure future buildings don't have problems. His business, The ACCESS Partnership, contracts with developers to ensure accessibility.
“Really, what that boils down to is a more marketable product,” Schexnayder said. “As the population continues to grow, the number of people with disabilities increases.”
“They've only had 21 years to address these problems,” Wittie said.
Wittie and his fellow ADAPT members say they will continue to sue until every roadblock to accessibility is removed.
More changes take effect March 11, 2012. You can view the changes by clicking here.