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Oakland access consultant Kim Blackseth answers some of the questions foremost in business owners' minds as they contemplate how to comply with state and federal laws. Blackseth, who is disabled, was appointed this year to the state's Building Standards Commission, which oversees all building code requirements, including disabled access provisions.

Businesses all around me seem to be getting sued for disabled access violations. What are the most common access problems that get businesses into trouble?

The most common issues are parking and bathrooms. These include parking without compliant striping, signage and curb ramps. Bathroom issues usually involve older facilities with stalls that were once compliant, but are now too small for a side approach. Additional restroom issues include signage, general lack of space, position of accessories and grab bar locations.

The local building inspector approved my business. Doesn't that mean I'm fully compliant -- and lawsuit-proof?

No. The building inspector only inspects for the current California Building Code (CBC). The federal ADA is civil rights legislation and is not within the purview of a local building inspector. The ADA and CBC do not always agree. The law says you defer to the code or requirement that provides the most access. The state Building Standards Commission is working with the state architect to have the federal Department of Justice certify that our CBC is equal to or exceeds the federal ADA standards. When that happens, you will be assured when you comply with the CBC that both state and federal ADA requirements are met.

How can I be sure my business is accessible and complies with state and federal access laws? Where can I get help?

The two best places to get information about the federal ADA are the U.S. Access Board's site at www.access-board.gov and the Department of Justice at www.ada.gov. The state publishes the applicable portions of the CBC in a California Access Compliance Manual at www.dsa.dgs.ca.gov/UniversalDesign/ud_accessmanual.htm. Additionally there are consultants and architects who specialize in assisting businesses and individuals. Ask your local building official for recommendations.

My business is located in an old building. Isn't my business grandfathered and exempt from disabled access laws?

No. Grandfathering is for the most part an urban myth. While the CBC only requires you comply with the edition of the state code when built or last altered, the ADA has a provision (Removal of Barriers, 28 CFR 36.304), which requires a business to remove barriers to access if they are "readily achievable."

California access laws conflict in some areas with federal ADA standards. How do I figure out which to follow?

You always defer to the standard that provides the most access. For instance, the ADA requires walkways at a 36-inch minimum width, while the CBC requires a 48-inch minimum width. You would install the 48-inch walk- ways; otherwise you would be ADA- compliant, but in violation of the CBC.

I'm a business owner who leases space. Who is responsible for complying with access laws -- me or my landlord?

The law says you both are equally responsible. In other words, you will both be sued if it's not compliant. As far as which party does the work or pays for it to be done, it's usually a matter of negotiation between the parties (tenant and landlord), as are most lease arrangements.

I own a very small business with limited parking. How much disabled parking am I required to set aside?

If you have off-street parking, at least one accessible space is required and as a general rule, one accessible space for every 25 parking spaces is required. The first accessible space is always a "van accessible" space. This requires a slightly larger access aisle on the passenger side and an additional sign.

Does every business have to have an accessible bathroom? Does every restaurant? How can I find out if I do?

No. Certain businesses are not required to have restrooms open to the public. If you serve food or drink, consumed on the premises, it's a good bet public restrooms are required. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that barriers be removed in public places when it is "readily achievable" and can be done "without much difficulty or expense." Who decides what is "readily achievable"? At the end of the day, the federal judge makes the final determination. As there is no agency or inspector to help a businessperson make an initial determination, however, the responsibility lies with the landlord and tenants. The information on "readily achievable" can be found in the ADA regulations at 36.304 at www.ada.gov.

Are there some inexpensive, easy steps I can take to make my business accessible?

The easiest items are signage, correct parking striping, adjusting entry doors to not exceed 5 pounds of effort, and reconfiguring toilet partitions to create usable space. There are two tax incentives available to businesses to help cover the cost of making access improvements: a tax credit for architectural adaptations, equipment acquisitions and services such as sign language interpreters; and a tax deduction for architectural or transportation adaptations.

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