UB Students Find "Disturbing Deficits" In Compliance With Americans With Disabilities Act Sites Audited Included Hotels, Shopping Malls And Restaurants

Release Date: January 31, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A study conducted by students in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning has found "a compelling and disturbing picture of continuing discrimination against people with disabilities" in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which deals with access to public accommodations.

The researchers based their conclusions on ADA compliance audits that they conducted last fall of public accommodations -- hotels, supermarkets, shopping mall, pharmacies, movie theaters and restaurants -- across western and central New York.

The team of 22 students found a pattern of widespread discrimination even in those public accommodations run by large and profitable companies. This discrimination was in violation of a January 1992 ADA deadline for the removal of all architectural and communication barriers to access to public accommodations.

After documenting the specific nature of the compliance violations, the students looked to the reasons for the problems and devised a model ADA education and enforcement campaign. Their research and the campaign has been presented to the Independent Living Center of Western New York in hope of obtaining corporate and public monies to fund a field test of the project. The study also was provided to "The Independents," a UB club for students with disabling conditions, and to a number of national advocacy organizations for people with disabilities.

The students involved in the project are seniors in a special program in facilities management at UB. They worked under the direction of Scott Danford, UB associate professor of environmental and organizational psychology, to assess ADA compliance by the six different types of public accommodations.

They reviewed three sites for each type of accommodation. In each case, the three sites were operated by the same national or regional business chain.

In addition, the students found a number of problems unique to specific types of public accommodations. These included, but were not restricted to, narrow aisles in theaters and seating that did not accommodate the hearing-, sight- or mobility-impaired; inaccessible shelf heights in supermarkets; poor information signage on automatic teller machines, and floor obstacles in malls that presented a hazard to the visually-impaired.

In conducting the audits, the students simulated three kinds of disability (vision, hearing and mobility impairment) at each site to determine the kinds of problems encountered by people with disabilities. They took measurements of counters, doorways, etc., that permitted direct comparison with ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), and, using a commercially available 162-item accessibility survey instrument, assessed each site's compliance with selected ADAAG provisions.

"The results offered prima facie evidence of continuing patterns of civil-rights violations against people with disabilities," Danford said, "and the students began looking for reasons for the failure to comply.

"Prohibitive costs related to compliance don't seem to pose a satisfactory explanation in these cases," he added. "The ADA restricts required alterations to those that are 'readily achievable.'

"In determining what is 'readily achievable,' the U.S. Department of Justice has ruled that the total resources of the parent organizations should be taken into account," he said. "And, in the case of all but one of the public accommodations we examined, the parent organizations is a large and profitable company."

According to Danford, "It was self-evident from the initial audit that there were only two possible explanations for this outstanding pattern of discrimination: either the public accommodations have a deficient understanding of the compliance standards or they do not feel sufficient pressure to warrant making the required changes.

"There certainly is a deficient understanding of the act," he said. "We found that certain public accommodations made some changes, but the changes didn't comply with the ADA accessibility guidelines. On the other hand, certain public accommodations were found to have made no changes, suggesting indifference at best. Total ignorance of the ADA would be difficult to imagine, given the publicity the act has generated since it was passed in 1990."

Since only those whose civil rights are being violated can bring suit under the ADA, the students determined that if the act's guidelines are to be enforced, the effort will have to be launched by people with disabilities themselves.

To support such an effort, the students developed a prototypical design for an equal-access education and enforcement campaign that encourages people with disabilities to act on their own behalf as informed and effective ADA compliance auditors.

Support materials produced by the students include a set of six pamphlets (also available on audiotape) that explain the campaign and introduce a proposed equal-access symbol that could be used to identify "total accessibility" in products and facilities.

The pamphlets discuss the public-access requirements of the ADA and explain the UB project and its findings. They also outline how ADA auditors can assess public accommodations to determine ADAAG compliance and the steps they can then take to have the law enforced.

To accompany these pamphlets, the students also produced a short video to illustrate one of the many ways to promote widespread public awareness of such a campaign.

Danford declined to name the business chains or the sites audited.

"Our goal here was to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem across a broad area in several different kinds of public accommodations, to report on it and suggest a way to encourage compliance." he said. He added that the UB auditing teams provided free confidential reports to the six organizations whose public accommodations were examined.

"These companies didn't invite us to look at their facilities," he noted, "and those included in the survey certainly aren't the only companies or sites that haven't complied with ADA guidelines. Far from it. For these reasons we want to maintain their anonymity. The sites we looked at were all connected with major business chains, however, and the modifications they had failed to make would have been neither expensive nor disruptive to their businesses."

Danford said there are a number of agencies and associations that will help businesses comply with Title III of the ADA by conducting detailed audits or assessments for a fee. One such local organization is the Independent Living Center of Western New York.

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