By Erin Rigik, Senior Editor
Convenience Store Decisions recently sat down with Brad Gaskins, managing principal of the McIntosh Group. Gaskins is well versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and has a track record of advising convenience stores and other businesses on the necessary steps of ADA compliance. What often comes up is avoiding the common missteps and hidden items within ADA guidelines, which are sometimes overlooked by designers and contractors.
CSD: Navigating ADA compliance can be difficult. If a convenience store isn’t compliant, what is the cost and the risk a business faces if it doesn’t take the necessary steps to meet the guidelines?
BG: When it comes to the ‘why’ of becoming compliant, there’s the carrot and the stick. The stick is the lawsuit and the losses you incur when you’re not compliant. The ADA was designed to be enforced via losses. So if a store is not in compliance and somebody files a lawsuit, the average right now to settle a lawsuit is $12,000 (per store). And that doesn’t include the remodel costs. If you wait for the stick, you also don’t get to decide when you’re going to spend that money, you do it when they require it.
The carrot is that there is a ‘silver tsunami’ coming at us, which is another way of saying the aging of the baby boomer generation. As the baby boomers get older, we’re going to have more accessibility issues. To keep those customers spending their dollars in your stores, you’re going to want to make sure you’re able to accommodate any accessibility issues.
CSD: What do convenience store chains, which aren’t currently ADA compliant, need to know?
BG: There appears to be, right now, a group from Pennsylvania that is traveling the country and filing lawsuits against convenience stores for failing to be ADA compliant. So there are these kinds of groups out there and this seems to be becoming more prevalent.
ADA compliance is a civil rights law, but we don’t often think about ADA compliance in terms of accessibility. That’s the paradigm shift that I think first needs to be made, especially as the silver tsunami approaches. Right now there are 54 million Americans with disabilities (according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation) and they have a higher than average capacity for income, so they have a lot of money. If they can’t get in your store, they can’t spend their money in your store. And, it’s not just the individual who is disabled who isn’t coming into your store, it’s also his or her entire family. None of their family is going to come to your store if one person can’t go there.
So, not only is it that individual that’s shopping in your store, it’s the bunch of other family members or friends. I think if you start thinking of it in that way it becomes much more of a positive direction as opposed to always relying on the stick.
CSD: From a design perspective, what are some of the bigger changes that you’ve seen convenience stores have to make aesthetically in the course of achieving ADA compliance?
BG: One of the biggest things that is frequently out of compliance that directly impacts customers is the fuel dispensers. They’re generally outside of the proper height range. If you are adding new dispensers then they need to be compliant. But for existing fuel dispensers that a store isn’t able to replace right now, usually we just suggest a little sign with the store’s telephone number so that a person could use their cell phone to call the store and ask for assistance in pumping gas. Replacing fuel
dispensers is very expensive, so adding that sign has been the solution that has been accepted by the Department of Justice.
CSD: What are some of the significant changes that frequently must be made inside a convenience store?
BG: As far as inside the store, various sections usually need to be made lower—such as the fountain drink area or the condiment area, so someone in a wheel chair could reach them. We also see a lot of problems with the bathrooms. They may not be big enough. The grab bars are often incorrectly located or the sinks are not in the right locations. There are a varied number of issues. Some could be very minor fixes, like adding or moving grab bars. On the other end of the spectrum, we had one client who had to tear out his bathrooms and completely rebuild them to achieve ADA compliance. Front counters can be an issue if you block the counter with merchandise. But we’re not seeing a whole lot of counters that are out of compliance these days, which is good. The height of a compliant counter is 36 inches.
CSD: I understand the entrance of the convenience store and the parking area can also require major changes for some stores to become ADA compliant. Have you seen this?
BG: The No. 1 issue that we see in all cases is parking spaces and access aisles and the accessible route from there to the front door. Of course the parking spaces need to be located as close to the entry as possible. By definition that would mean you would want to put them right in front of the front door, with a ramp directly in front of the front door. That’s probably not likely in a lot of cases. Even if it is, we think offsetting it to be just outside of where the door swings would be fine. That way when a person walks out of the door, they don’t block access to the ramp. That can cause problems as well. The worst case that we’ve seen with parking lots is having to change the slope of the accessible parking spaces in the back.
CSD: You mentioned store aisles are also under scrutiny. Can you explain what changes might be coming?
BG: Under one of the new codes being proposed right now, the aisle width would need to be increased. Generally, the stores we’re looking at already have aisles that meet the proposed width requirements. Now, when it comes to some really old stores, we often have problems—not necessarily the aisle width typically, but when you get to the end of the aisle and you have to make a turn—that’s where we see the problems.
But sometimes that’s fine in c-stores because the way many convenience stores are designed, they try to put the coolers in that area and therefore they have more room.
CSD: Do you know when these proposed aisle changes could be coming?
BG: I think the earliest we’ll see it is the 2018 building code.
CSD: What is the bare minimum you recommend convenience store retailers consider doing to begin ADA compliance, if they don’t have the ability to do everything right now? And will an action plan help chains if they are targeted by a compliance group?
BG: The first thing, what’s required by law, is that you have a plan of action of how you’re going to remove the barriers in the store over a year, three years, five years, maybe even as long as seven years. So you’re saying, ‘I’m going to do this this year, I’m going to do these next year,’ so on and so forth. Now you’ve got your plan of how you’re going to do it. And that way if you’re remodeling a store at some point in time, you can wait and do some of the work then instead of having to do it now only to rip it back out when you remodel.
This way you’re not spending the money twice. The one thing that I’d suggest every store get right—the very first thing— is to make sure the parking spaces and the accessible route to the front door are ADA compliant. That is probably the No. 1 generator of lawsuits that we’ve seen.