Adding Ramps, Wide Doors to Improve Access Also Opens Up Profit Potential

If you think having a couple of handicapped parking spaces makes your store attractive to disabled shoppers, think again.

Accessibility experts say steps, narrow doorways and counters too high to accommodate those in a wheelchair are costing you. In fact, they say, businesses that aren't disabled-friendly are ignoring about one-fifth of the U.S. population--49 million people with $188 billion in discretionary income.

"Accessibility is really a customer service issue," said Lyn Falk, president of Retailworks, a retail design and consulting firm in Cedarburg, Wis. "Once someone who is disabled feels comfortable in your store, they will spread the word and bring in more business."

Falk, who incorporates accessibility into all her store designs, said rather than living in fear of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, small-business owners should consider money spent making their stores more accessible as an investment in future sales.

For example, ramps and parking spaces don't just help shoppers in walkers and wheelchairs. They also benefit people with heart or respiratory problems. Wider doors, aisles and bigger restrooms make shopping much easier for parents with strollers or children in tow, as well as for overweight customers. Signs and prices printed in a larger typeface assist any shopper with a vision problem.

Although advocates for the disabled heralded the passage of the disabilities act about eight years ago as landmark civil rights legislation, many business groups opposed it as too far-reaching and expensive. The law requires public and commercial spaces to meet a minimum federal standard of "barrier-free" accessibility.

While the law requires new buildings to meet stricter rules, it doesn't require existing buildings to be retrofitted until they are renovated or expanded.

"Existing buildings do not have to meet the designs required for new construction, but [business owners] do have to remove barriers when it's readily achievable," said David Yanchulis, public affairs director of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barrier Compliance Board, better known as the Access Board.

Big and small businesses must comply with the act, which is enforced by the Justice Department. Since the department doesn't have the staff to go in search of violators, most enforcement actions are prompted by someone filing a complaint against your business.

It makes sense to review the accessibility of your store to see if changes can be made.

When Jim Sajdak, president of Stan's Bootery, remodeled his main store in the Milwaukee area in 1996, he worked with Falk to make it totally accessible. The store features accessible restrooms, wide aisles and doorways, and a special counter for wheelchair customers. His landlord installed a ramp, and he has a handicap loading zone in front of one of his three stores.

"It's not just being sensitive to disabled people," Sajdak said. "We serve elderly people and moms with strollers. You want your store to be as easy to get to and get around in as possible."

Sajdak goes a step further by advertising his stores in Arthritis Today, a publication aimed at older readers, and the Source, which covers disability issues.

"It's important for independent retailers to find a specialty," he said. "Any group of people you can attract will help your business."

Business owners may also benefit from special tax deductions provided under the disabled access tax credit. You may be able to deduct up to 50% of the cost of making your business more accessible. Ask your accountant to research and explain these credits. The targeted-jobs tax credit offers deductions to businesses that hire disabled employees.

Here are additional ways to make your business more accessible:

* Rearrange your racks and displays to widen the aisles.

* Print signs and price tags in 16-point type or larger.

* Offer brochures and fliers in Braille.

* Widen the doorway and add handrails and new faucets to your restroom to accommodate disabled customers.

* Set up a small table or provide a clipboard for credit card transactions and check-writing. This really helps seated customers.

* If you are installing new counters, include a lower one to accommodate customers in wheelchairs.

Robin Wallace provided research and reporting assistance.


Jane Applegate will be on a small-business panel April 25 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. For more information, call (213) 237-2665 or visit

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