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A range of ideas

For years, lawsuits have been the way disabled access laws are enforced in California and elsewhere. But other solutions have been proposed to try to bridge the gulf between disabled Californians and the business community - who regularly express frustration and anger with one another. Among the ideas:

Enact notification laws: This kind of revision to state or federal law would require that businesses be notified of alleged ADA violations and given a prescribed time period to fix them, before being sued. A highly controversial idea, it has been defeated nationally and in California. Disabled rights activists believe it would encourage businesses to do absolutely nothing until they are sued, then give them a free pass to make changes they should have made long ago.

Eliminate, or reduce, access damages in California: With California one of a handful of states that allows damages for disabled plaintiffs -- it has the highest minimum amount of $4,000 per violation -- many believe disabled plaintiffs are encouraged to make a living seeking out violations, however minor. Reducing or eliminating the damage awards, some believe, would remove the incentive for less substantive lawsuits.

Pay damages only when access is impeded: Some believe too many ADA lawsuits involve violations that have no direct bearing on access, such as sign color. But critics of such reform argue that frivolous suits are a rarity, and that something that may seem minor or "technical" to an able-bodied person, such as a round doorknob or out-of-place toilet paper dispenser, can be a huge impediment to the disabled. The measure proposing this was pulled back in 2005.

Raise tax credits for ADA improvements: This bill, one of several attempts by outgoing Republican Assemblyman Tim Leslie of Tahoe City to address business concerns, died in committee this year -- despite support from disabled groups and businesses.

Create new administrative oversight: No government agency exists that can assure a business it is complying with state and federal access laws. Some believe the best way to achieve access while curtailing lawsuits is to create some kind of government-sanctioned inspection program, similar to that of Cal-OSHA.

Align California regulations with federal standards: In some areas, state and federal access standards conflict. California currently is working to have its building code certified by the U.S. Department of Justice, meaning that local building inspectors enforcing the building code could tell businesses if they also were meeting or exceeding the federal ADA standards.

Ensure that modifications are made: Some access attorneys who settle cases for disabled clients never ensure that businesses make the changes. Some suggest amending California's civil code to require more oversight by the courts when access-related settlements are reached and attorneys' fees and damages are awarded.

Invest in public education: Many business owners say they are confused by the laws and don't know how to comply. One San Diego lawyer concerned about the mass ADA filings said the United Kingdom launched a media campaign, including bus stop posters, to advise businesses on that country's disabled access laws. California disabled rights groups say they've tried to offer free workshops to businesses but have had few takers.

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