Homegrown ADA programs give businesses cash incentive to improve access, ward off lawsuits

DURANGO, Colo. -- Disability advocates say two small Colorado communities hold some of the best proactive solutions yet in combating the waves of disability lawsuits sweeping the state.

The lawsuits, which have generated nationwide attention, claim businesses discriminate against people with disabilities by violating provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Denver7 Investigates team, in collaboration with Denver7's sister station in Phoenix, uncovered a digital trail that links the latest waves of litigation to an organization that filed more than 1,000 cases in Arizona. Targeted businesses there and in Colorado say the motive is money, not improved accessibility.

Oftentimes businesses are unaware of the technical ADA guidelines before they get sued.  Disability advocates admit the regulations can be complicated and confusing.

Though it seems a simple solution to the nation's accessibility problems is out of reach, community leaders in Durango and Pagosa Springs are championing two similar, homegrown programs that give businesses a cash incentive to make proper ADA renovations.

In Durango, Maria's Bookshop has experienced the benefit.

"It's the right thing to do for the community," store owner Peter Schertz said in an interview with Denver7. "It's the right thing to do for our business too."

Schertz is aware of the ADA lawsuits. Several hit Durango in the last 18 months.
 
"Doesn't seem like the right way to go about it," he said. "It almost polarizes the community, I think."

That's what the ADA assessment program aims to fix by balancing the concerns of businesses with concerns raised by the disabled community.

"So, basically, we've looked at what can actually get people in the door," Tara Kiene, President and CEO of Community Connections said. The organization manages the block grant funding that supports the program.

In Durango, interested businesses can get a free ADA assessment. If they make proper ADA renovations, they can get reimbursed dollar for dollar up to $2,000. Kiene said the costs rarely reach that amount.

"I have been impressed with the amount of impact people can make in reaching their accessibility goals with a pretty small investment," she said.

At Maria's Bookshop, Schertz said renovations cost less than $500. Among the improvements were new door levers in place of round doorknobs, better door thresholds, better hinges on the restroom doorway to allow for greater clearance, and better grab-bars near the toilet.

"This is the low-hanging fruit for sure," Schertz said of the project.

In Pagosa Springs, business owners have a similar sentiment over that community's program, which is funded by tax dollars.

"I don't want to say it would have been an afterthought, but it wouldn't have been in the forefront, so it was really helpful," Peter Hurley, co-owner of marijuana dispensary San Juan Strains, said of the ADA improvements at his store.

The town will match 50 percent of a business's ADA renovation expenses up to $2,000, according to community leaders.

Neither ADA program in Durango or Pagosa Springs would have been possible had it not been for Mark and Chris Douglass, a father-son duo who founded a nonprofit called Peak Access.

Mark Douglass has disabilities of his own. His name may sound familiar. He's an ADA expert hired by businesses in the Denver metro that have been sued in one of the recent waves of ADA litigation.

"It's infuriating," Douglass had said of the lawsuits in an interview with Denver7 several months ago outside Original Pizza in Broomfield, one of the defendants.  "I can't express how angry it makes me feel."

He and his son were crucial in convincing Pagosa Springs and Durango to develop their respective ADA programs.  They live in Pagosa Springs.

"There's nothing like this. And, basically, we're being proactive. And what we've done here should be replicated across the state," Chris Douglass said.

State disability advocates are paying attention to the programs and believe city and county leaders should replicate the programs in their communities. If they don't, they said there's a greater likelihood the lawsuits will continue.

"It's actually being done in a positive manner, which is what we're really looking for," Gina Robinson, the immediate past chair of the Colorado Advisory Council for Persons with Disabilities said.

Denver7 also spoke with Robert Hernandez, the ADA Coordinator of El Paso County, Colorado, who said these ADA programs complement the work he does to ensure the county's facilities and resources are in compliance with the ADA.

"Any time you can be positive and have a proactive approach on making something better, it's a win-win situation for all," he said.

The thought is: if two small communities in a corner of Colorado can figure out a way to embrace the disabled community in a way that improves accessibility while also warding off lawsuits, the rest of the state can too.

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