It’s been 28 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress, and while it has helped improve access and working conditions for millions, complying with the law can be expensive, not only for businesses but for local governments as well.

In the last fiscal year, the Mobile County Commission has put more than $1 million into projects and evaluations aimed at bringing its sidewalks, walkways and public buildings into compliance with the federal law. Over the next few years, those costs are expected to increase.

“In July 2016, the commission committed to achieving ADA compliance in all county-owned facilities, rights of ways and the provision of services as a countywide priority,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “We pledged to budget $500,000 a year to accomplish necessary improvements.”

As part of that commitment, the county created an ADA transition plan in 2016 that, according to Katherine Eddy, the commission’s director of public affairs, “spells out the county’s intent to achieve ADA compliance through specific projects, such as curb ramps and sidewalks and in the normal ongoing work the county performs.”

Mobile County’s Government Plaza.

In 2016, 519 curb ramps throughout the county were identified as needing replacement in order to comply with the ADA — the majority in more rural areas. The county has since awarded a $248,756 contract to Sunset Contracting Inc. to install ADA-compliant curb ramps in various locations.

Today, there are still 105 curb ramps in need of replacement along county right-of-ways and subdivisions.

For municipalities, the key component of the ADA is Title II. According to the county’s transition plan, it “requires state and local governments, including counties, to make their programs and activities accessible to individuals with disabilities.”

As mentioned above, the commission spent $1.032 million on ADA projects aimed at ensuring that access — mostly on compliance upgrades at the Strickland Youth Center.

In FY 2018, more than $5.5 million is slated for projects with “specific ADA components” and the commission also listed compliance upgrades as one of the “major capital improvement projects” it will pay for with $24.5 million the county borrowed in 2017.

Complying with the ADA is expected to increase the cost of planned renovations at the county’s Jon Archer Center as well as the construction of its new Community Corrections Center.

It can be difficult to pin down the exact cost for the ADA components in those construction and renovation projects because most are priced by their total cost and don’t single out the expenses associated with ADA requirements.

Eddy said ADA-compliant parking and “path of travel accommodations” will be included in drainage and paving work planned for the Eight Mile shopping complex and the Bayou La Batre Community Center next year, which are projected to cost $500,000 and $340,000, respectively.

Despite the costs, Commission President Merceria Ludgood said pushing for ADA compliance throughout Mobile County was “the right thing to do.”

“There is more work to be done and we are continuing to approach it in an aggressive manner,” she added.

Effect on business
In recent years, several businesses in the Mobile area and across the country have been hit with an increasing number of ADA access lawsuits over specific violations of the 1990 law. Many times those are brought by private citizens denied access to a business because of a disability, but civil action can also come from the federal government itself.

Those complaints often cite issues that may include a lack of handrails or handicap-accessible parking, but also less obvious violations such as the height of soap dispensers and dining tables, or doorway widths that can’t accommodate some wheelchair sizes.

In recent years, though, there has been concern over what some have described as “ADA lawsuit abuse” as some attorneys have made it a routine practice to file dozens of complaints on behalf of a single client.

While the ADA doesn’t allow plaintiffs to seek monetary damages, the owners of businesses sued under the law can end up covering the attorney fees of both sides in addition to paying for the required upgrades at their establishment.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the number of ADA access lawsuits in the United States saw a 63 percent increase in 2015, and of the 4,700 such lawsuits filed that year more than 1,400 originated from the same eight plaintiffs.

Kellie Hope, vice president of community and governmental affairs for the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, said a number of ADA complaints have been filed against businesses in the Mobile area over the past few years. As a response, she said, one of the items on the chamber’s federal and state legislative agenda this year is to push for clearer rules on identifying and correcting ADA access violations and establishing a window of time for businesses to correct small violations before a civil lawsuit moves forward.

“We’re not against ADA at all, we just want there to be clear rules that allow time so our member businesses can address any issues that may exist because, being a historic city with old buildings, there’s going to be some retrofitting that’s necessary,” Hope said. “We want those businesses to be able to reinvest those funds in our city and not spend them defending lawsuits.”

Jim Flora, an outreach specialist with the Independent Living Center of Mobile, said the ADA was never intended to be “a burden” on businesses or local governments but to move them to “make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.”

He also told Lagniappe recently it has been reassuring to see the strides toward ADA compliance made by the county but also by the city of Mobile.

“It has been encouraging to me that both the City of Mobile and Mobile County have
proactive plans to be in compliance with the ADA,” Flora wrote. “Working as a counselor and Independent Living Specialist at the Independent Living Center of Mobile — nonprofit providing services and advocacy to people with disabilities — I have seen firsthand the improvements and opportunities for inclusion that the ADA has brought to people with disabilities in our community.”

However, Congress is currently considering a bill that could make significant changes to the ADA — one Flora and other national organizations like the American Association of People with Disabilities have “strongly advocated against.”

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 would, among other things, prohibit access lawsuits from moving forward until the aggrieved party had filed a written complaint with the non-compliant business and waited for a period of time.

Flora said he’s aware some have been “scamming the system” to make money off ADA complaints, but feels that diluting the ADA shouldn’t be the way to address it.

“We certainly need to deal with that, but I don’t think that backing up the ADA would be the way to do it,” he said. “The ADA has been around since 1990. That’s a long time, and a lot of people in the disability community feel like people have had enough time already.”