In Depth

Andover Commission on Disability Evaluates Local Establishments, Some Student Favorites Delinquent

Only 29 percent of the businesses on Main Street are fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to a recent study conducted from 2004 to 2007 by the Andover Commission on Disability. Of the businesses commonly visited by Phillips Academy students, the Andover Bookstore, Sweet Mimi’s and the CVS pharmacy were notably absent from the list of accessible stores. Karen Harris of the Andover Bookstore attributes the lack of accessibility to the building’s age. “The upstairs isn’t accessible, but the first floor is, and you can go into the back and the children’s room,” Harris said. “[The visiting author] Andre Dubus came in either 1996 or 1997 so we put in a ramp then for him,” Harris said. According to Coppola, the reason Sweet Mimi’s is considered inaccessible is because of a law that requires “18 inches of clear wall space” at the side of the door so a person in a wheelchair can open the door independently. Coppola said “We sent a personalized letter to the businesses and the building owners informing them what was wrong … We will re-visit in the spring just to make sure.” However, according to Mimi Queen at Sweet Mimi’s, so far they have not had a problem with accessibility. Queen said, “Different groups came down to measure my doorway and they said my doorway was fine.” Queen continues, “We’ve never had a problem. Can they get a wheelchair in the door? Absolutely, Can they get around the store? Absolutely.” Justin Coppola, Chairman of the Andover Commission on Disability, said “[The commission] awarded these forty-six businesses with decals, a sign of approval.” These decals, placed in the store windows, indicate that the facility was approved by the Andover Commission on Disability and have met all the standards of the ADA. The commission compiled accessibility expectations into a checklist to ensure fairness for all businesses. Criteria included a lever or loop handle operable by a closed fist, a stable surface leading to the door with a minimum width of thirty-six inches, elevators to access multiple floors, and a ramp with a slope of one inch in height to twelve inches in length if a ramp is necessary. The commission surveyed in total 159 businesses with Main Street addresses from Wheeler Street North to Stevens Street. They contacted the businesses and made appointments for the evaluations. Photographs were taken for documentation and evidence. According to the study, 36 businesses, or 23 percent of the total, need only minor adjustments in order to be fully compliant. These adjustments include changing of door handles and minor modifications of the threshold of the entrance. 77 businesses, or 48 percent of the total, need major adjustments in order to be fully compliant. These major adjustments include the need of an elevator or ramp, modifications of the entrance and modifications of the rest rooms. According to Coppola, the constant change of businesses poses difficulties in keeping the information up to date. “There is a constant ebb and flow of businesses moving in and moving out. Our goal is to review the new businesses as soon as we can, otherwise the information becomes quickly out of date and meaningless,” Coppola said. The Andover Commission on Disability, established in 1995, serves as an advisory group to inform town officials on the issues and needs of residents with disabilities. This voluntary group worked with the town of Andover to make all town-owned buildings compliant with ADA regulations. Coppola said “We also do individual advocacy. If someone calls us needing help with a problem, we help them. We went from helping the town to helping the residents.” In fact, this was the beginning of what became the large-scale quantitative evaluation of Main Street’s accessibility. The criteria were mostly based on wheelchair accessibility, although there were other criteria such as audio alarms for those with sight deficiencies. Coppola said, “It is easier for us to talk wheelchairs because it’s a physical entity. People have a hard time visualizing other types [of disabilities].” According to Coppola, the evaluation was met with surprisingly little resistance. “Some of the resistance was in the initial contact. People didn’t understand what we were trying to do,” Coppola said. “We’re very non-confrontational. We don’t get anything by being obnoxious. We advocate for change, but nicely with a teaspoon of honey,” Coppola continued. The evaluation complimented the Main Street Project of Andover — a six million dollar project that includes repaving the sidewalks as part of a safety and beautification initiative. As part of the study’s recommendation, the commission set a goal to raise the compliance rate to 40 percent by the completion of the Main Street Project and 50 percent within a year of the completion of the Main Street Project. According to Coppola, the problem in Andover is mainly due to age. Coppola said “We’re the typical old New England town.” Not only do businesses have to comply with the ADA law on a federal level, they also have to comply with the Architectural Access Board (AAB) Law on a state level. “There’s a constant battle between state and federal [law]. You have to comply with the most stringent law,” Coppola said. Under the AAB state law, renovations worth over $100,000 require the building to meet state law. CVS’s budget for its recent expansion is over $100,000, and therefore will include accessibility renovation. The AAB law allows certain exceptions. Coppola said “You don’t have to comply with the new state laws if [the building] is built before 1968 and if you don’t spend $100,000 in renovations.” There are also incentives for these businesses to become compliant. According to Coppola, it makes sense to become compliant because it can increase business. Federal tax credits are offered for small businesses under a million dollars if they are compliant, according to the ADA federal law. According to Coppola, at least one bank in Andover is offering low-cost loans to help businesses on Main Street achieve compliance.