|By Steve Hart, The Press Democrat, Santa
Rosa, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 08, 2012--Starting next week, swimming pools, spas and other recreation facilities open to the public must be accessible to people with disabilities.
It's the latest effort to implement the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the 22-year-old law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
Sonoma County's hotel operators are worried about the new regulations, which they call confusing and potentially costly. Lodging owners may be forced to install expensive pool lifts or pay for other remodeling to accommodate disabled guests.
"There's a great deal of uncertainty," said David Scott, general manager at the Sheraton Sonoma County hotel in Petaluma and head of the Sonoma County Lodging Association. "We want to comply, but there's a lack of clarity."
Lodgings aren't the only businesses facing the regulations. They also apply to resorts, health clubs, golf courses, boating facilities, shooting ranges and other recreation sites.
They were approved by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010, but don't take effect until March 15.
"The new rules usher in a new day for the more than 50 million individuals with disabilities in this country," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said last year.
People with disabilities have the same access rights as anyone else, said Barbara Duncan, spokeswoman for Disability Rights California, a Sacramento-based nonprofit.
"If I used a wheelchair and paid for a hotel I would expect to use its facilities," she said. "Up until now some of those facilities have not been available."
Few lodgings meet the requirements now, said Jim Abrams, an attorney with the California Hotel & Lodging Association.
"People are trying to figure out what they have to do," he said.
Abrams met with Sonoma County lodging owners last month to explain the rules and advise them on how to comply. The requirements for pool lifts are the most worrisome, Abrams said.
"The Department of Justice is taking the attitude that 100 percent of pools and spas have to have lifts," he said.
Pool lifts are powered devices with seats that help disabled people enter and exit the water. They cost about $10,000 to purchase and install. Two lifts are required for a pool and separate spa, he said.
But there's confusion about how the requirement applies to existing hotels, because of vague language in the law. It says the upgrades must be "readily achievable," or installed without much difficulty or expense.
That means hotels may not be in violation on March 15 if they make their pools accessible as soon as possible, according to the state lodging group.
"We are advising people to get their properties inspected and find out what it takes to fix," Abrams said. They also should consider getting insurance against third-party discrimination lawsuits, he said.
The law may be seen as burdensome, but providing better access for disabled guests is good for business, Abrams said.
"The market is huge and it's growing," he said.
(c)2012 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
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