‘Change has to start somewhere’

Yesterday’s story on ADA lawsuits inspired a spirited response from our readers. Read the comments here.

BizSense finally caught up with the plaintiff in the cases, Niki Swann.

Swann is the 2010 Ms. Wheelchair Virginia pageant winner but said her suits have been filed on her own accord as a private citizen. Swann, whose spinal cord injury occurred in a motor vehicle accident when she was 16, was also recognized by the General Assembly this year with a joint resolution commending her advocacy efforts.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of BizSense’s correspondence with Swann.

Richmond BizSense: Why’d you decide to take legal action against these businesses?

Niki Swann: Accessibility is an issue all over the country — not just here in Richmond. I’ve been to these places, and things that should be accessible under the ADA guidelines aren’t. The issues with these places (restrooms) are easily fixable, and unless legal action is taken, they aren’t taken seriously. I have written letters to places in other cities, and nothing ever happens.

RBS: What experiences have you had with other businesses in terms of accommodations and accessibility?

NS: Some places are worse than others. What some people may think is accessible really isn’t for the person who needs the accommodation. I’ve been to places where I haven’t even been able to fit in a bathroom or close the door. It’s embarrassing, and those things need to change.

RBS: How did you first find out about your rights under the ADA? Is there a specific incident that made you pursue these cases?

NS: There are lots of incidents that I’ve encountered over the years that have been unfair — from parking to public transportation to the blocking of ramps by bicycle, lack of curb cuts, even the absence of ramps. Could you imagine not being able to go into a building with the rest of your friends because of something that you couldn’t control? Over the years, as I’ve become more comfortable with my disability, I’ve decided that I need to know my rights.

RBS: Why not just take your business to places that are accessible?

NS: Accessibility shouldn’t be the deciding factor about where I eat dinner or go out for a drink after work. I know it’s hard to understand for a lot of people, because those doors (literally) are always open for them — how would it feel if they weren’t?  It’s about making my city more accessible not just for me but for others in the future. Change has to start somewhere.

Yesterday’s story on ADA lawsuits inspired a spirited response from our readers. Read the comments here.

BizSense finally caught up with the plaintiff in the cases, Niki Swann.

Swann is the 2010 Ms. Wheelchair Virginia pageant winner but said her suits have been filed on her own accord as a private citizen. Swann, whose spinal cord injury occurred in a motor vehicle accident when she was 16, was also recognized by the General Assembly this year with a joint resolution commending her advocacy efforts.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of BizSense’s correspondence with Swann.

Richmond BizSense: Why’d you decide to take legal action against these businesses?

Niki Swann: Accessibility is an issue all over the country — not just here in Richmond. I’ve been to these places, and things that should be accessible under the ADA guidelines aren’t. The issues with these places (restrooms) are easily fixable, and unless legal action is taken, they aren’t taken seriously. I have written letters to places in other cities, and nothing ever happens.

RBS: What experiences have you had with other businesses in terms of accommodations and accessibility?

NS: Some places are worse than others. What some people may think is accessible really isn’t for the person who needs the accommodation. I’ve been to places where I haven’t even been able to fit in a bathroom or close the door. It’s embarrassing, and those things need to change.

RBS: How did you first find out about your rights under the ADA? Is there a specific incident that made you pursue these cases?

NS: There are lots of incidents that I’ve encountered over the years that have been unfair — from parking to public transportation to the blocking of ramps by bicycle, lack of curb cuts, even the absence of ramps. Could you imagine not being able to go into a building with the rest of your friends because of something that you couldn’t control? Over the years, as I’ve become more comfortable with my disability, I’ve decided that I need to know my rights.

RBS: Why not just take your business to places that are accessible?

NS: Accessibility shouldn’t be the deciding factor about where I eat dinner or go out for a drink after work. I know it’s hard to understand for a lot of people, because those doors (literally) are always open for them — how would it feel if they weren’t?  It’s about making my city more accessible not just for me but for others in the future. Change has to start somewhere.

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Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

Did you ever call your local code compliance officer? If you had, you’d know how easy it is to fix the problem without suing a small businessman and putting Mom and Pop enterprises out of businesses. But then you’d have to get a real job and not live off this scam.

Andrew Moore
Andrew Moore
11 years ago

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the legal issues surrounding ADA, but as an architect, I can respond to a couple of the comments that wondered about the building code. Basically, the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (VUSBC), has provisions for providing accessibility for new construction and renovations. The trigger for enforcement is the permitting process at the local level. For existing conditions, there are some baseline life-safety provisions that have to be met for occupancy, but for the most part, unless there is a change in use, the existing conditions are grandfathered in and considered compliant with… Read more »

Stephen Weisensale, AIA
Stephen Weisensale, AIA
11 years ago

As always, I am befuddled by the lack of knowledge on the part of the those who claim to be “experts” on this topic, such as Ms. Swan. Her comment: “The issues with these places (restrooms) are easily fixable” is absurd, as it demonstrates her lack of knowledge regarding the actual cost of addressing accessability in existing facilities. As an architect with 30-years of experience in the field, I can assure you that renovating old restrooms in existing small businesses so as to be in accord with the ADA Guidelines can be a very expensive undertaking. Often times, this involves… Read more »

Al Davis
Al Davis
11 years ago

I can’t understand why people with issues think that they can be treated as the norm. The people with “low income” issues can’t expect to live exactly where they may want to live. People with health issues should NOT expect to live where the people without issues live. The government wants to be fair. Life is not fair. When you popped out and looked at your mom or your doctor they never promised you anything. The government has screwed up this economy by saying; “no matter how much money you make or what health issues you have, you can own… Read more »

Anne Kennon
Anne Kennon
11 years ago

I fully support the spirit of the ADA, but as a former business owner in Carytown, I can say that the usual first notification of an issue with accessibility is a letter from an attorney, NOT the individual behind the lawsuit (or implication of a lawsuit)….so from that first notification, the meter is on, and payable by the business owner. Add to that the cost of renovations, and you could push a breaking-even business into closing up shop for good. At the same time, sometimes there are some obstacles that just can’t be overcome. My mother is completely deaf, so… Read more »

Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

ADA is federal, HOWEVER all localities in Virginia have adoped it as part of their code and DO enforce it. IF you see any code violation, you can call your locality and they will cite the owner until they fix it. I think if this woman is going to sue businesses for not provided accessible facilities, she must PROVE she tried to solve the problem through other channels first. IE: letter to business owner. Complaint to local code compliance office. I question her motives because she’s gone straight to civil court with large monetary awards without giving the people a… Read more »

Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

Code compliance is for existing buidling that are not in compliance. Getting a building permit is done right after construction before occupancy (or change of use). They are 2 very different functions. Just like if your weeds are too high and your neighbor can call code compliance on you, or if you have a unregistered car, one can fine a complaint with the locality if a business is not compliant with accessibility regulations.

Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

The code official comes because there’s been a complaint by a citizen, not because the business owner has requested a building permit, ‘architect.’

Peter Bunin
Peter Bunin
11 years ago

First of all, I’d like to commend your intelligent, well informed readers for their sophistication in seeing behind this transparent curtain. There are few things more unscrupulous to me than people slickly packaging a legitimate issue/concern in order to churn revenue in the name of “social justice” A BIG thank you to Stephen for having the courage to speak up with his qualified credentials. It certainly appears (to me) that the “tone” of this article was predetermined as oppossed to “following the trail” of obvious inconsistencies & self serving factoids. When asked why she didn’t directly contact the business as… Read more »

Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

In Virginia, The local code officials and inspectors must enforce the local, state, federal and international building code. (All localities have adoped the International Fire Code and enfore it locally rather than wait for the UN to come down and inspect propertie, lol!) Codes are enforced during construction through the building permit process and for the life of the property through code enforcement (primarliy complaint-based). So if you see a buidling that isn’t accessible, call your local code enforcement office and they’ll fix it. No lawyers, no settlements. Just solutions.

Stephen Weisensale, AIA
Stephen Weisensale, AIA
11 years ago

Sorry Cindy – but you are obviously quite ignorant of how the permit system actually works, as is proven by every statement you have made here thus far. Please stop offering inaccurate “authoritative” comments on a subject that you know obviously nothing about. Localities do not “adopt” the ADA; they have no say in the matter as it is a Federal law. And since the ADA is NOT codified in the Stare Building Code it is NOT enforced by local building officials anywhere in this state (see Chapter 11 of the Uniform Statewide Building Code where the accessibility portion of… Read more »

Elise Madison
Elise Madison
11 years ago

Cindy,

It appears that you have your facts misconstrued as, Niki Swann does have a job as a professor of English at a local college. Also, considering the lawsuit is not for any monetary damages, your point of calling this a “scam” is moot.

Julia Battaglini
Julia Battaglini
11 years ago

My retail shop in Carytown was part of the “first wave” of letters and lawsuits two years ago, as were over two dozen others, most of whom are reluctant to speak up because of fear of raising a red flag or seeming insensitive to accessibility issues. My experience? One day out of the blue I got a letter from attorney Joel Zuckerman, saying his client wanted to come into my business but the 3″ rise entrance of my 1920s building (I rent) was prohibitive, and I had 30 days to fix or answer suit. Not having money for construction or… Read more »

Krista
Krista
11 years ago

We’re all entitled to our opinions but what REALLY makes me angry is that people are attacking her as a person, ie “But then you’d have to get a real job” Cindy, I didn’t know you knew her personally. You know that her job isn’t “real”? You have no idea what else she does. “People with health issues should NOT expect to live where the people without issues live.” Excuse me, what? PEOPLE WITH/WITHOUT ISSUES? This infuriates me. Having a spinal cord injury when you are 16 years old, having your whole life change in a second, and fighting for… Read more »

Jim Pettit
Jim Pettit
11 years ago

Thank you, Elise, Krista and Julia for bringing some sanity to this discussion. The ADA is a civil rights law and the barrier removal issues that confront Niki Swann are covered under Title III of that law. Fortunately, many of its provisions have been incorporated into the International Building Code (IBC) that is in force in many jurisdictions throughout the U.S. There is no such thing as “grandfathering” for any public accommodation. However, qualified historic structures and some other buildings that do not meet the standard of “readily achievable” MAY not have to comply completely with the Accessibility Standards of… Read more »

Ken
Ken
11 years ago

Right on Niki !! Too bad some of the readers/posters don’t know the facts. 1. Ms Swann does have a real job! 2. ADA comes from the federal level, but it is incorporated into building codes. There are a lot of older historic buildings that don’t comply. 3. A building permit is required prior to construction ( “Getting a building permit is done right after construction before occupancy (or change of use)” Actually a Certificate of Occupancy is obtained prior to occupancy. 4. Generally, cost can’t be used as justification if someone can’t comply with a building code. 5. People… Read more »