Disability 'Advisors' Preying on Businesses

Supporters of new federal disabilities law warn of fraudulent 'certifications'

TWO weeks after the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) began to take effect, its supporters are warning of "fear-mongering" aimed at businesses that may need to improve their accessibility.

Since last summer, when President Bush signed the legislation aimed at enabling people with disabilities to work and function in mainstream society, Better Business Bureaus around the country began to see brochures warning businesses they could face expensive lawsuits or advertisements for "ADA certified consultants a classification that does not exist.

On Jan. 26, the first part of the ADA took effect. It requires businesses, government buildings, and public transportation to be accessible to the disabled or face sanctions by the Department of Justice.

Many of those required to make changes were initially apprehensive that they could be forced to make expensive alterations. The law, however, allows an exception when changes present an "undue burden." The law also promotes creative problem-solving; if one solution proves too expensive, cheaper methods of accommodation are encouraged.

Still, some smell an opportunity to make a buck.

"We haven't found any outright scams thus far, but (what) we have found is a lot of fear-mongering," says Barbara Bode of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc.

"What we have, for example, are brochures that come in the mail saying, "Avoid an avalanche of litigation," or, "Have you ever been sued for discrimination?" That sort of thing. Then they plunge right in with, "Do we have a seminar for you!" Ms. Bode says hundreds of brochures from around the country have crossed her desk. Jim Dinegar of the Building Owners and Managers Association International compares the would-be "ADA consultants" with some "asbestos experts" of the 1980s who sought to make money aft er the passage of anti-asbestos legislation.

"In fact," says Mr. Dinegar, somewhat facetiously, "we have recommended to our members that if they see cards that say 'ADA expert' and you look close and the word 'asbestos' is scratched out and ADA is written in, that's a pretty good sign that you shouldn't be dealing with (that person)."

The point is not to have businesses spending $5,000 on a consultant when only $25 worth of change is needed.

"We would encourage partnerships between persons with disabilities and licensed professionals and others who have a thorough understanding of this law to arrive at solutions that make sense," says Kim Beasley of Paralyzed Veterans of America.

HE United Cerebral Palsy Association (UCPA) recently conducted a survey of compliance with the ADA in 11 cities, sending teams of people with disabilities into businesses to check accessibility. Most cities did fairly well, earning a grade of "B." But perhaps more important, the teams found they could help advise businesses on needed changes and suggest reasonable solutions. A hotel in Birmingham, Ala., for example, told the local UCPA that its inspection saved them from having to hire an expensive consu ltant.

In Washington, D.C., the Adams National Bank has had a fairly painless experience coming into compliance with the ADA. The bank added Braille to the keys on its automatic teller machine. It added a doorbell to its front-door entrance, since the glass doors can be hard to manage. It lowered the doorbell near a side entrance to make it accessible to those in wheelchairs. And it bought clipboards for use by customers in wheelchairs. All told, the changes came to well under $1,000, and the bank has become a "sample small business" in Washington, demonstrating to others how to comply without spending a lot of money.

Four complaints have been filed so far with the Department of Justice. They are against properties in New York, including the Empire State Building.

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