- Gabe Taylor of The Independence Center
- The Independence Center’s Tim Ashley demonstrates needs.
“There were six of us, so they lost a pretty good check,” he says.
It’s an experience that’s all too familiar for those with disabilities. Without parking lots that meet accessibility requirements, such as the proper number of stalls, adjacent access aisles with striping, and ramps, it’s sometimes impossible for people with wheelchairs or walkers to enter a business.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, lays out a set of requirements that businesses must meet to ensure all customers can easily navigate their buildings and exterior. It’s complaint-driven, and enforced only at the federal level. So in order to hold a business accountable for accessibility issues, someone has to file a lawsuit.
But there’s a problem with these so-called “drive-by lawsuits.” Disability advocates say some attorneys simply take a settlement rather than pressuring businesses to change, meaning the ADA’s original purpose becomes lost.
“[The ADA] was supposed to bring businesses and people together and it hasn’t done that,” says Teri Ulrich, co-owner of consulting firm ADA Surveys and Plans (ASAP).
The Independence Center, a local nonprofit for people with disabilities, has taken a different approach. They worked with ASAP to conduct 108 “drive-by assessments” of parking lots in Teller, Pueblo and El Paso counties, checking for accessibility and providing the results to business owners for free.
Of those 108 parking lots, their assessment showed that only two met all of the ADA standards. Thirty-three didn’t have enough spaces for people with disabilities, and 48 didn’t have adjacent access aisles for people to roll out their wheelchairs — the two components that Ashley, an independent living coordinator at the Independence Center, says are the most important.
Those low scores may be because no one at the city or at the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department (RBD) regularly enforces federal parking requirements.
The Pikes Peak Regional Building Code, which applies to construction in Colorado Springs and El Paso County, draws its content from the International Building Code (IBC), a template of sorts for jurisdictions nationwide.
Parts of the two codes are the same, but one key difference lies in the area of enforcement. While the IBC requires businesses to provide accessible routes “from public transportation stops; accessible parking; accessible passenger loading zones; and public streets or sidewalks,” Regional Building Code only covers accessibility within 5 feet of a building’s entrance.
Since RBD doesn’t check for parking lot accessibility, it’s up to individual municipalities within El Paso County to catch violations during the permit process, says Roger Lovell, building official for RBD.
There’s a section of city code added in the ’90s, explains city spokesperson Jamie Fabos, that specifies requirements for businesses. These “in some cases mimic ADA requirements, but Code and ADA are separate,” she says.
But the city only checks that businesses meet code during the planning and review process, and after construction. A new development plan must show accessible routes and “must contain a note stating that the plan reflects all site elements required by the applicable federal ADA requirements and acknowledging that compliance with federal and state accessibility laws is the sole responsibility of the property owner,” Fabos says.
After construction, city planners make sure the development complies with the plan. If not, they “can withhold the Certificate of Occupancy,” she adds.
But neither RBD nor the city are responsible for enforcing the ADA, says Kevin Williams, legal program director for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. If a building re-stripes a lot incorrectly, for example, the Department of Justice is the one responding to a complaint or lawsuit.
It would make it easier for everyone, Williams says, if the city or RBD would enforce the ADA to help business owners avoid lawsuits: “It would be like giving all the businesses a huge tax break.”
Patricia Yeager, CEO of the Independence Center, says RBD should be the one to take on parking lot inspections because “they already have inspectors and they know the ADA.”
Lovell disagrees. Code changes are hard, he says, because each of the seven jurisdictions encompassed by RBD would have to approve individually, and the department “would have to have funding in place to make this happen.”
Lovell could not estimate what that cost would be without further research. But, as the Indy recently reported, RBD donated $1 million in surplus money to charities in 2016 and 2017 from its reserve fund, which now holds more than $10 million — recent hailstorms may swell that surplus even further.
Lovell notes that it can also be difficult to make small businesses follow all of the ADA’s requirements, some of which, such as sign height and stall width, are very specific.
“If you think about... a small little mom-and-pop business with limited parking,” he says, “and you say they have to have two accessible stalls right in front of their business, most small businesses are going to say, ‘No, I need those parking stalls for the people who are coming day-to-day.”
On Aug. 14, City Council did approve an additional $300,000 for the city’s ADA program. Fabos says it will be used to hire five full-time inspectors and one administrative position to make sure city facilities in the public right-of-way, such as ramps and sidewalks, comply with the ADA.
Ashley thinks the city should also hold private businesses accountable.
“Especially in new construction,” he says, “or if a business or a property owner is going to repave or re-stripe their parking lot, they need to get somebody with some ADA knowledge to at least have some input, look over their plans and sign off on that as being ADA compliant.
We shouldn’t have to call the Department of Justice to get an access aisle moved.”