My New Perspective Towards Providing Disability Access

Ask any property owner, tenant, developer, or broker what they think of the American Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and you will likely get an earful of negative feedback. I share much of that sentiment as I believe that the implementation of the ADA has fallen short of its intended goals.

I recently returned from visiting my 80 and 81 year old mom and dad in the Charlotte, NC region. My mother has walked slowly for years and generally can get to where she wants but it just takes a while. Getting in and out of a car and up and down from a sitting position has become more challenging.

When I last visited 9 months ago my dad was riding his new electronic assist bike and really enjoying it. But after a recent fall, he has been having stability issues and is no longer able to use the bike. He now walks with a cane to maintain his balance and support.

This visit gave me a new perspective regarding the ability of our retail community to figure out ways to encourage improved accessibility. For example, I gained a true appreciation for the large disabled parking spaces. Without the ability to open the doors completely, neither of my parents would have been able to get into their car.

Based upon this newfound appreciation, here are some additional ideas I want to offer.

Revamp ADA Implementation

The reason many of us have little regard for the ADA is because of how it is implemented. The fact that an individual and their attorney are able to sue a tenant or property owner for financial benefit fuels resentment. Despite the number of times that I wish I could hand out tickets for traffic violations and benefit accordingly, our traffic laws don’t give me this right. We need to change to a system that empowers the property owner to correct the problem while levying reasonable fines under reasonable circumstances.

More Drop Off and Pick Up Areas

There were numerous times during my visit where having a safe and convenient drop-off and pick-up area was far more important than availability of an ADA space. In California, every drop of land is valuable, so I understand the potential burden of adding drop-off and pick-up areas. But what if we could trade off some ADA spaces for better drop-off areas.

I can see a world where a decision between a visit to two restaurants for a large family could be easily determined by which restaurant provides the best access for both dropping off the oldest family members and getting them unimpeded access to their table.

During my trip with my parents, the movie theater provided an excellent pick up and drop off area while the live theater we visited was infinitely more challenging. Side bar: My parents stopped attending this live theater because of how difficult it has become for them to attend, but they still go to the movie theater.

Provide the Opportunity for Flexibility Based Upon Reality

There are clearly situations where more handicap/accessible spaces would be practical and others where fewer make sense. We often see a full parking lot with a bunch of empty ADA spaces. Even though Home Depot is over 120,000 SF, does it really need 25+ ADA spaces? At the same time, maybe there are some restaurants that have a much higher percentage of people who would benefit from ADA spaces at certain times of the day, but these spaces aren’t utilized at other parts of the day. What if ADA spaces could be similar to metered parking and have different rules depending upon time of day?

Disability Friendly Retail Environment

I was only visiting my parents for a few days, but the following are a few ideas that are relatively easy to accomplish and would make shopping environments much more convenient for our aging population.

  • More Shade/Cover: In hot and/or rainy environments, providing areas where one is protected from the elements can help keep customers shopping at the property, especially older ones who can’t run to the next area of cover (if it even exists).
  • More Seating: Providing more opportunities to sit in the shade will give those that are with the older generation the ability to spend more time and money at your property. You can see the potential. Maybe it is the older family member sitting on a chair in a particular store or an area outside where he/she can sit and read while the other family member shops.
  • More Curb Cuts: The ability to get from place A to place B in as few steps as possible without navigating curbs could really improve a property’s desirability. I recall a story where the dean of a university initially put down grass instead of installing concrete paths on a new section of campus. He waited until the end of the first semester so he could see the natural patterns that emerged from the students and only then did he install the concrete paths. My suggestion is to look at a property from the perspective of someone using a cane, a wheelchair, or a stroller to determine what practical changes could be made to accommodate this customer.
  • Be Aware of Paths of Travel: If you are a restaurant owner or manager and you realize that the only way for someone to get to their table or to the restroom is to be able to walk on a tight rope through your restaurant why not move some tables around to make it easier to navigate.

While the current ADA system has many flaws and shortcomings, I do have a new appreciation for the challenges faced by less mobile people and their families who are trying to help these individuals maintain both dignity and community involvement. Those of us in the retail industry are a creative bunch of people and I am confident that if we collectively think about how we can make our retail properties better for the aging consumer, we will ALL be more successful.