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July is 'Access Awareness Month'

Local Commentary

Posted: July 13, 2008 1:15 a.m.
Updated: September 13, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 

This July, California observes Access Awareness Month to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since its passage, progress has been made toward more accessible communities. Yet significant gaps in access persist, despite the efforts by many to comply.

In recent years, an increasing number of lawsuits filed in cases of non-compliance have regrettably pitted portions of the business and disability communities against one another.

To address this issue, I am jointly authoring Senate Bill 1608 with a bipartisan group of fellow legislators in an effort to promote increased ADA compliance with the complementary goal of reducing the need for litigation.

The language in SB 1608 reflects a strong bipartisan commitment to address the concerns of the affected communities in a fair and equitable manner.

While the language contains several key provisions, there are two critical elements that will significantly increase accessibility as well as reduce the need for expensive litigation.

First, SB 1608 encourages business owners to work with state-Certified Access Specialists (CASp). These specialists will be trained specifically to survey business sites to assess where the business is deficient according to accessibility standards, and make recommendations for the business to follow in order to bring their facility into compliance.

Business owners who take the proactive steps of hiring a CASp and following the CASp recommendations would be eligible to request an early settlement conference through the courts in order to bring the parties together for a quicker resolution to the access dispute.

The advantages of the early settlement conference are significant for both businesses and people with disabilities. Specifically, the conference gives the parties the opportunity to resolve the litigation at an early stage.

For businesses, this means avoiding additional damages and costly attorneys' fees and expenses, which can accumulate quickly if litigation proceeded without the benefit of the early settlement conference.

For Californians with disabilities, the quick resolution that would occur as a result of the conference means a speedier removal of disputed barriers, which would allow access to these sites in a much more expedient time frame.

For businesses that opt not to use the CASp process, they would not be eligible to request the early settlement conference, thereby running the risk of longer, more expensive litigation.

By enacting SB 1608, the Legislature will be encouraging businesses to take proactive steps toward accessibility and assisting people with disabilities achieve their ultimate goal of a more accessible California.

The second element aimed at increasing accessibility is the enactment of "first in California history" access-specific continuing education requirements for building officials and architects.

One of the major issues vocalized by the disability community is the need for more proficiency about access issues among those involved in the building and planning process.

While our local building officials and architects are very knowledgeable on the many intricate details of our state's building standards, the complexities of state and federal access standards and the scope of business non-compliance throughout the state warrant special attention to this important area of our building codes.

In addition, SB 1608 would require all inspections relating to permitting, plan checks, or new construction in privately owned buildings to be conducted by a building inspector who is a Certified Access Specialist (CASp). This will minimize, to the maximum extent possible, the inadvertent approval of non-compliant projects.

As we commemorate Access Awareness Month in California this July, it is very encouraging to know that SB 1608 is not only going to help businesses comply with access laws as well as protect important civil rights, but that it is moving through the Legislature with broad support.

While much of the news coming out of Sacramento in recent months has been negative, still some good things are happening - SB 1608 is a prime example of how bi-partisanship can effectively resolve complex issues to the betterment of California's many diverse communities.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 38th Assembly District. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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