RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Americans with Disabilities Act is more than a quarter-century old, yet, to this day, many businesses are still not compliant with the many regulations of that civil rights law, which has led to one organization in Arizona taking enforcement into its own hands. Will Stone of member station KJZZ reports.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: The building that houses Kimber Lanning's music shop, Stinkweeds, in uptown Phoenix was around long before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
KIMBER LANNING: These are old buildings, mostly from the '30s. As you can see here, we have two clearly marked ADA-accessible parking spots.
STONE: So Lanning was surprised when she was served with papers earlier this year alleging she had violated the law. The culprit - the sign for those parking spaces.
LANNING: I had no idea that there was a height regulation on the signage.
STONE: Hers were a couple inches below the required 5 feet off the ground. Lanning quickly fixed the problem, but she still had to settle the case. And as the head of a local business association, she's heard a lot of these stories.
LANNING: We've had businesses call us practically in tears. You know, can we have a payment plan? This is a lot of money.
STONE: Settlements are confidential, but the complaints often demand $5,000 or more to cover legal fees. This year, more than 1,500 Arizona businesses have been sued for this type of ADA parking lot violation.
PETER STROJNIK: I'm not saying that businesses are bad or evil. I think that they're simply consciously indifferent to the plight of the disabled.
STONE: That's attorney Peter Strojnik with Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities, or AID, the group behind these lawsuits. He says Congress knew enforcement would often fall on private attorneys, and there needs to be some compensation.
STROJNIK: Number one, they have to comply. And, yes, they have to pay the costs, expenses and lawyer's fees just like the law says. But the fact is they can't complain. They've known.
STONE: Strojnik says his group targets parking lots because those are symptomatic of other accessibility issues. He says an investigator takes pictures, but the plaintiff doesn't always visit the business. For instance, one local man is listed on more than 500 cases.
A lot is still unknown about AID. It only recently became a non-profit. And Strojnik says he makes no money. Instead, settlements help fund wheelchairs and other donations for those with disabilities. Critics call it a scam.
MARK BRNOVICH: What we believe we see is using the Disabilities Act in a systematic way to enrich themselves.
STONE: Mark Brnovich is Arizona's attorney general who recently intervened in the cases, which are brought under the federal and state version of the ADA.
BRNOVICH: When you have a bunch of frivolous lawsuits, I think it undermines the public's confidence in what is or isn't happening with the Disabilities Act.
STONE: Complaints should go to his office first, he says. The group, Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities, however, argues Brnovich's motivations are political - to serve the business community.
And some are ambivalent about the state's involvement at all, like Phil Pangrazio. He's with Ability 360, one of the country's largest centers for independent living. He doesn't like the aggressive approach taken by AID.
PHIL PANGRAZIO: No, I'm not in love with that strategy because it does create this kind of backlash where the business community gets upset about it.
STONE: At the same time, Pangrazio worries the real victim of this bad PR could be the ADA itself.
PANGRAZIO: Modifying it, amending it in a way that really takes away the civil rights of people with disabilities.
STONE: Sure enough, Arizona Senator Republican Jeff Flake has introduced legislation that would give a business 120 days to correct a violation before being sued. Disability advocates warn that could take away the incentive to make the necessary changes unless you're caught. Pangrazio says, after all, 1 in 5 people has a disability.
PANGRAZIO: We don't think the law is the problem.
STONE: And the width of a doorway or having a ramp can determine if a business is really open to everyone. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Phoenix.
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