Businesses scramble to comply with orders for disability access


By Dave Schwab

If your business isn’t ADA-compliant — it ought to be.

Several La Jolla merchants were not and have been called on it. It cost them dearly both in time and money.

Mitch’s Surf Shop and a handful of other Village businesses acted recently to become ADA compliant in the wake of an enforcement sweep initiated by a disabled activist.

More than a year ago, Theodore Pinnock, a disabled attorney with a reputation for conducting unannounced ADA-compliance sweeps, paid a visit to La Jolla citing at least two businesses, WindanSea Veterinary Clinic at 6911 La Jolla Blvd. and Kathleen Buoymaster Inc., an interior design studio at 6933 La Jolla Blvd., for being non-ADA compliant.

Mitch’s at 631 Pearl St. was closed Sept. 26 to Oct. 1 to install a wheelchair ramp, and for parking lot reconstruction to provide disabled parking space to accommodate vans and other large vehicles in front of the shop.

Signed into law in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a wide-ranging measure intended to make facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. The act has typically led public and private entities to install curb ramps, rails in restrooms, etc.

Discussing the ADA case against Mitch’s, attorney Amy Vanderbilt representing Amy Greenberg, who is disabled, said “My client, in a wheelchair, could not access Mitch’s because there was simply no accessible path of travel to the entrance. When cars were parked in the parking spaces, they blocked the walkway to the business. Inside, there was no wheelchair access to the surfboard display.”

Vanderbilt said the modifications made by Mitch’s as a result of the lawsuit benefit both the disabled and business communities.

“Now there is one more surf shop available to people with disabilities and Mitch’s just expanded its client base,” she said. “As they say in the disabled community, ‘If you live long enough, you’ll be one of us.’ ”

Attorney James O’Neil, who represented Mitch’s Surf Shop, doesn’t dispute the wisdom or mandate of the ADA Act. But takes issue with how it’s being applied and enforced.

He pointed out that ADA modifications, depending on their complexity, can cost $20,000 or more, and legal penalties have also gotten much stiffer for non-compliance. “It started out as a $200 fine per condition,” he said. “That has now gone to $4,000 per condition. The standards are very tight. Even if you’re off by an inch, you don’t meet the standards.”

And, O’Neil noted there are a great many reasons for businesses not being ADA compliant. “Some people may buy an old building not realizing it’s not compliant,” he said. “I think the law should be changed so that before a person can be sued for ADA non-compliance, a letter be required to be sent informing them of their non-compliance, and giving them X number of days to comply.”

O’Neil noted there are many businesses in La Jolla that are unaware of being ADA non-compliant. “I can hardly walk down a block in La Jolla without spotting what appear to be non-compliant conditions,” he said. “Many of these are very small, but that doesn’t mean a lawsuit can’t be filed to contest them.”

Because ADA-accessibility laws apply to commercial property owners as well as businesses, Vandeveld cautioned people shouldn’t wait until they’re sued to provide disabled access to their facilities.