Most people have common misconceptions about what ADA is. ADA is a disability rights law, not an accessibility law. Kent Kelly of Meeting the Challenge discusses how his company helps institutions and communities be ADA-compliant. He talks about some of the projects they’ve made and how they can teach you to comply and negotiate with the DOJ if you have to, and get a reasonable implementation plan to achieve the objectives of the law and make your community more accessible. It all boils down to being compassionate, caring about people, and doing what’s right. He says if you can’t do it for that, then at least mitigate the risk and try to avoid a law suit.
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Kent Kelley Meeting the Challenge CEO, demystifying ADA accessibility with consulting initiatives for both public and private entities.
We’re here with Kent Kelly in Meeting The Challenge’s office in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We interview some of the best and brightest business owners and entrepreneurs in and around the state of Colorado. We talk about the ins and outs of running a business and being an entrepreneur inside shared by top business leaders and entrepreneurs in the state of Colorado. We talk about what to do, and as importantly, what not to do about growing, running or starting a business. We’re fortunate to have as our guest Mr. Kent Kelly. He’s the President of Meeting The Challenge, a Colorado Springs based company with 27 years of experience working on ADA accessibility, consulting initiatives for both public and private entities since the inception of the ADA. Kent, it’s a pleasure to have you.
Thank you, Bob.
What is ADA?
It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was signed into law back in 1991 and then became enforceable in 1992.
For the average businessperson, what would be the evidence of seeing ADA?
It’s a disability rights law. It’s not an accessibility law. It’s not a wheelchair law as some people say. It’s not a building code. It’s all about requiring nondiscrimination against people with disabilities.
C: ADA is a disability rights law. It’s not an accessibility law.
Parking spaces, adequate space for them to get out, ramps, restrooms done properly in the gamut of things. When I was looking at your website, it said ADA accessibility on websites.
That’s the big topic du jour. Websites have to be accessible and that’s a pretty complicated concept. There are no standards right now. The Department of Justice has been working on them and has tabled them because of the complexity of it. Essentially, what it means is we can go to a website, we can order off of Amazon or whatever, we can do surveys, do about anything, pay your bill, pay your taxes or whatever. That has to be accessible for people with disabilities too. For instance, how does a blind person access a website? If we would think about it, it would be nearly impossible unless the website was accessible because they’re going to use a screen reader. This is going to tell you everything that’s there and how to navigate through the site. What we found are some major lawsuits, even though we don’t have standards that are enforceable. The DOJ is still acting and enforcing some best practices for websites. Target, Netflix, Winn-Dixie, a lot of sites, a lot of universities, Harvard, all have been under settlement agreements to get their websites successful.
Take us a little bit through your career before coming to MTC and how you came across the company.
I’ve tried a lot of different avenues. First of all, I was a commercial lender for the largest bank in Colorado Springs right out of college. I thought I was a big shot. That was a good training ground for how to interact with people, my clients that were my commercial loan customers and all. There were some pretty large transactions in millions of dollars, but over time it wasn’t appealing. You get tired of looking at financial statements and doing things that sort. I migrated away from the banking industry for a number of reasons. They’re being scrutinized by the Feds back then. There were a lot of bank consolidations and crisis. I decided, “Too stressful, get out.” After that I became a real estate broker. It was like jumping right into the fire. You learn a lot about people as a real estate broker. I worked with residential and commercial properties, but there’s something to be said about pure commissions and the taste of the dollar. You have to almost compromise your ethics to make as much money as you possibly can. That got old in a hurry. I did that for about eight years. I decided to get back into the financial arena and I became the CFO of a publishing company here in town. That was a lot of fun because I was way behind on technology and this company had a very successful website that was getting millions of page views every month because it was so successful.
In fact, they later sold their website as a forum for $10 million to American Express after I left, unfortunately. I did that for a while and there were some circumstances that caused me to retire from that position. That lasted a couple years, then I started a construction company because that’s what I first started. Through my personal experience, I realized that for a person with a disability, day-to-day routines can take hours where it takes us minutes. We started doing universal design construction and renovation of commercial and residential properties. That was pretty rewarding, but it wasn’t quite there. What sealed the fate of that career was the crash of 2008. We closed the company down. We didn’t have anything to show for all of our hard work and effort. I was languishing right then and there.
I wanted to do something that would make a difference with people because I was getting to that point where I didn’t want to chase money anymore and I didn’t want to be in that big corporate world. I wanted to be more in a company that was entrepreneurial. I came across this opportunity back when it was the Rocky Mountain ADA Center. They didn’t have a way to use all of that knowledge that they’ve learned over twenty years and all that expertise and the ability to decipher this very complex law that connects us with the DOJ. They just used it for the Rocky Mountain ADA Center. They thought that’s got to be worth some value and the way to implement ADA is through consulting projects. They brought me in as the Director of Consulting Services. I remember one of the founders said, not with me around, “He’ll never make more than $100,000 a year.” It’s not about the money, but you have to have some sustainability for a project to work.
Here we are, seven years later and what statistic that I’m most proud of is that we work with a lot of state and local governments across the country. We’ve helped improve accessibility and communities with population of 23 million people. That is a lot better than selling real estate or being a CFO or a banker or whatever. I feel like we’re making a difference with that. That’s probably what I’m most proud of because anybody could become disabled at any point in time. It’s the largest minority in the country. They have spending power of $175 million but they’re often ignored or people believe that it’s some funded mandate. On the same guy that’s out there complaining about having to spend money to make his city or business successful, he could be in that same situation at any time. What it all boils down to is you’ve got to be compassionate. Plus I’m getting older too. You’ve got to be compassionate. Care about people and do what’s right. If you can’t do it for that, then at least mitigate the risk and try to avoid a law suit or something.
You’ve got to be compassionate. Care about people and do what's right.
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I think about your description of what you did before MTC, construction and CFO. It sound like you were doing your pre-course work before you came here.
Everybody says that there’s this grand plan for you and it did work out that way. The way my life changed over those years, it was perfect. When they hired me, they interviewed me maybe fifteen or twenty times. I don’t think they were quite sure about this venture. When they finally hired me, I tell everybody to this day it’s the best darn job I’ve ever had and it’s not about the money. It’s about seeing the communities become more accessible and seeing the light come on in the city council member or the county commissioner’s brain where he realizes that it truly is important. It’s not about obeying the law or an unfunded mandate. It’s about being non-discriminatory.
My one opportunity being disabled is I kicked the fat kid one time playing soccer. Broke my leg over his and so I was on crutches for a very long time. That’s a very simple, short term inconvenience, but it makes you appreciate being able to get through the door. For here, we’re in a military town, I’m paramilitary. I look at our soldiers coming back and many of the disabled soldiers. For them that’s a new occurrence and then you had the folks dealing with disability from day one. Everybody’s got an opportunity or should have an equal opportunity and I’m onboard with the ADA, at least not as an army guy. I’m not thinking of Air Defense Artillery which is what I thought first about ADA, as what we referred to. When we think about this and folks who are going, “MTC is Meeting The Challenge,” where do they typically hire up for?
The most common project that we do is to help cities, counties and metropolitan districts comply with the ADA and that’s for a couple reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do. We don’t want to discriminate against anybody. Second, it’s a law and it’s an enforceable law that the DOJ can make your life miserable if they decide that they want to come and hang out in your city for a little while and find out what’s wrong with it. It’s a risk management thing and it’s being a good steward for that community. Some of the negatives are if you don’t have a self-evaluation and a transition plan, that’s a buzzword that our audience probably doesn’t know what that is. Essentially, what it means is that everything that city provides its citizens, every program, service, whatever, is accessible. Website has to be accessible. It’s not a building code and I have to emphasize that.
Accessibility or accessible facilities do play a very big role on it. It’s also effective communication. How you accommodate people at a counselor or commissioner’s meeting that are deaf? What happens if a police officer pulls over or arrests a person that’s deaf and he doesn’t understand what the rules and laws are for effective communication? It is about facility accessibility, but it’s such a wider topic than that. That’s predominantly what we do because if you don’t have the required documents, self-evaluation and transition plan, you could possibly enter into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. Which means they’re going to be looking over your backs and having you do photo verification reports for five, six or ten years. It also means that they could fine you $55,000 for the first occurrence and then $110,000 for every other occurrence after that. I would say the average community that we see in Colorado or about anywhere have a minimum of 4,000 or 5,000 violations of the ADA. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they don’t know. It’s a very complicated law. When you have that, it adds up. The last thing people want are US attorneys running their communities.
Does the Department of Justice have a fairly active enforcement arm?
Yes, they do. For state local government, it’s called Project Civic Access. We have a good relationship with them. If you don’t have that, then they’ll make you get one in a very short amount of time. Not only that, if you have, for instance, inaccessible public rights of way with no curb cuts or whatever, they’re not going to give you any time to fix that. They’re going to say, “Three years. We don’t care how much it’s going to cost.” In one community, that was $44 million just for curb ramps.
We see evidence of that here in Colorado Springs. Pretty much every intersection where you’ll see curb work and, “What are they doing?” Then you’ll see this ramp being built in. It’s wide and it’s nice and you go, “There’s the visual evidence that that’s going on here in Colorado Springs.”
There’s another reason for that too. The Federal Highway Administration will not fund your community unless you have a public right of way self-evaluation and transition plan. We’ve seen communities where they literally had to shut down roads because they couldn’t get funding for it and they couldn’t do anything until they have those documents.
When a community goes in to be compliant, where’s the funding coming from?
The funding comes from the city or county’s revenue stream. There are funding sources that are block grants available through head and everything, but the majority of it comes through the city or county’s coffers. That’s one of the reasons you don’t want the DOJ looking over your shoulder because you’re used to a $3 million or $4 million budget for repairs or whatever, and then all of a sudden it’s $20 million or $30 million. We see that time and time again. It’s difficult to raise your taxes up that high to reach those milestones.
That’s a mental picture for our audience that is the size and shape of the issue. Who typically reaches out to you guys? What do they ask you to do and what do you do for them?
Let me briefly touch on what the mission and role of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center is because that dovetails with who reaches out to me and/or the business to have us work for them. The Rocky Mountain ADA Center provides training and dissemination of information and technical assistance. That’s where we learn everything about the law because we had to answer these questions on a daily basis. 27 years ago when that first phone call came, I guarantee you we didn’t know the answer to it. If we had to, we would call the Department of Justice or the access for it to go.
We try to establish relationships because the first inclination is that we’re the ADA police. We’re going to make their lives miserable and we’re going to reveal all of this to the public, which is required by law that they have all this rung, and they’re going to be sued by citizens, the DOJ, or whatever. That’s not the case. The case is it’s the other instance. We’re helping them manage the risk against lawsuits and comply with the law. What we try to teach them is that it’s very important to have those documents to comply with the ADA, to comply with the law, so they don’t have to have the risk and disgruntled citizens.
I think about as a community. If you didn’t know there’s a method to learn, there’s a method to get a plan, and there’s a method to start budgeting and in getting toward compliance, what’s the sense of humor of the DOJ if you’ve got your plan in place and you’re making efforts toward getting compliant, but for budget reasons, you can’t get it done in a year or practically you can’t?
The DOJ is not unreasonable. They are very sensitive to that because it happens in every single community because of the magnitude and the complexity of complying with the law. There are two avenues. A lot of times, an entity will come to me because the DOJ is auditing their community and there is ultimately going to be a settlement agreement. Since we do have a good rapport with the Department of Justice, they have vetted our trainings as the standard for them. They use our curriculum. They’re reasonable so we try to negotiate. We’re in the middle of one of these projects this very instance that I cannot disclose because of a non-disclosure agreement.
As we explained that and teach the DOJ what the circumstances are in that community, we’ve been able to increase those milestones from that frightening three years to five, maybe six years. Let’s say you get six years down the road, you’re making progress. The DOJ, you have to stay in contact and provide reports. They’re more than likely going to be understanding and give you some extra time. What they don’t like is if you just say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We have a transition plan,” and you don’t do anything.
For the city managers and staff as they do the budgets and then whoever’s in charge of doing the road construction or the new buildings and so on, if they had the plan in place, then we go to have the building or construction bid, then they can fold that into their plan. They’re addressing future projects in their plan.
What we’ll see more often than not is if you have a plan, even if it has milestones that are outside the accepted guidelines for the DOJ, they’ll be complacent with that and they won’t enforce it. They might check in from time to time but if you’ve got that document, you’re going to have access to Federal Highway Administration Funds, Department of Transportation funds, block grants, and you’re going to keep the DOJ off your back.
For sake of illustration, I’m the ABC community in Colorado. For the sake of argument, I don’t have any knowledge or any implementation of any compliance so I make a phone call to you guys. What should I expect to see happen from you guys?
That’s not uncommon at all. I would say probably less than 40%, 30% of the nation’s cities, counties and towns have transition plans. That’s a very common occurrence. They also don’t have ADA coordinators which are required by the law and we see that all the time. It’s a collaboration. We’re there to teach you and be your partner. Teach you how to comply, teach you how to negotiate with the Department of Justice if you have to and get a plan, a reasonable implementation plan so that you can achieve the objectives of the law and also make your community more accessible and keep everything under control without having to worry about short milestones to get a lot of stuff done.
I have no idea as a community what range of pricing that could be to get an estimate of the size and shape of the problem.
If you’re talking about self-evaluation and transition plans, I am reluctant to come out and say the average project costs because each one is unique and different. What we’ve tried to do over the years is become more efficient with technology. We find that a lot of organizations and consultants don’t use that technology.
What we've tried to do over the years is become more efficient with technology.
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For the individual or entity out there and they’re going, “I don’t know if I should call or not,” what’s your advice to that entity?
I would say call the Rocky Mountain ADA Center because that is free. It’s funded. If you’ve got a question about accessibility or whatever, that’s what we’re here for in our six-state region.
What are the states that are covered in that?
That is Utah, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.
If you’re in those states, you call that number and at least you can say, “I’m aware, I made the phone call, here’s what I talked to, I’ve got the size and shape of where I’m at,” and then the follow on when they reach out to you guys.
The follow on is geared to what that particular community is and can afford. A lot of times, we’ll do phased projects. For instance, there was a Department of Human Services for an entire state and they said, “We only have $5,000. What can you do for that?” We said, “We can do a darn lot for that. We can take a look at all your policies and you can get started on that.” That’s the most important part. Your programs have to be accessible. We can dig in to all the offices at some point in time. If you choose not to, that’s fine too. What we try to do is structure that because it’s important to us for a couple of reasons. Our mission is creating a more accessible world for everyone. We take that to heart. We understand that budgets are tight and it’s sometimes difficult.
What we’ll do is we’ll work with the community. If they engage us, we’ll talk more about how we actually obtain business. We figure out what their objectives are, what the scope is and how we can accomplish the highest level quality project for them that’s reasonable and that they can certainly afford to do, whether we phase it over a couple of years or we have their staff help. That’s a great training ground for the facilities manager to go out there and hold the tape for us. For data collectors, that’s like ADA crash course bootcamp. They can take that knowledge back to their community and not only save money but learn a lot about the ADA.
For the community, you’re working for the benefit of your community and so we’re good citizens. Were interested in helping the folks that are not as fortunate perhaps or don’t have a current disability. We all live long enough. We’ll all have one or another. My comment or thought is always at least you’ve done something and you’re starting somewhere.
It’s that first step that’s the most difficult because they’re apprehensive. They don’t know how much it’s going to cost. They don’t know what the risk is. That’s what we’re here for. We want to be able to explain to them how important it was and what can happen if they don’t comply with it, and make it something that’s reasonable. Break it down into manageable tasks and projects that they could accomplish. If they make progress, they’re often pleasantly surprised at how much of the findings that we uncovered could be as easy as adjusting a door closer or something like that.
We were talking about how to get a hold of the Rocky Mountain ADA, but we didn’t talk about how to get a hold of MTC.
You can call that same number, but the number that I would prefer is one that’s direct. They can use the 800 number if they want, but 719-444-0252 is one way, and the best number is my number 719-433-7649.
Where can they find you on social media?
What is your website?
Let’s talk about some of the case studies. That would highlight some of the things that you’ve done.
What got us off the ground, what taught us what we know and what are the odds was that it had value was the first accessibility project that we embarked on. We were hired by Kaiser Permanente to go through every single one of their medical facilities. It was 23 million square feet that we looked at. Over time, we were like, “We got a job. What do we do now? How do we capture all that data?” It was pretty terrifying and they said, “We want 23 million square feet audited and we want to know what the priorities are. If you’ve got some probable opinions of costs, throw those in too.” We threw our staff out there. They worked long hours.
We were using paper to collect data back then. Times have changed. We did it and we impressed Kaiser so much that they now engage us. They don’t build one office building or renovate any space without us reviewing the plans and then walking through afterwards. They realized that their architects and architects in the community don’t necessarily understand the law like we do. We’ll go through and they’ll build a $10-million medical office building. We go through every step of the way, the schematic design, the parking lot. We go through the phases of the plans and we get them perfect.
That reminds me of that old axiom, measure twice, cut once.
I learned that in construction too. They’ll get this big beautiful building up and then they’ll say, “Can you take a look at it and see if it’s accessible?” Not one of them ever is perfect. The beauty of that is the way they structured their contracts. That becomes a punch list that the contractor has to cover. We worked on one project. It was a hotel. They’re getting ready to install probably $1 million worth of light switches at the wrong height. They were reading our plans correctly. The chief electrician had the wherewithal to call and he said, “I’m looking at our plans and you say it has to be this height and they’re saying it has to be this height.” They were able to save probably $200,000, $300,000 worth of change orders and punch list items just on that one little thing alone.
That would be Kaiser Permanente group. What other variety of projects have you worked on?
We’ve worked with a lot of counties. One of the deep projects that we worked on first of all was probably the furthest we’ve been from our office ever. The state of Georgia, the Department of Natural Resources, hired us to audit their 123 state parks. These guys hadn’t been to the south much. When the first data collector almost stepped on a copper head out there, they’re like, “This is exciting.” That was a great project because they had the confidence and that as we competed with a bunch of other companies to go in there and actually change. They were very focused on accessibility and they’re so proud of their new bathrooms that they installed their state parks, and they got it wrong. They spent a lot of money. We see that all the time. We’ll see a community that builds miles of sidewalks that are wrong. Colorado Springs, a new intersection, very close, brand new. It’s wrong.
I think about that on a planning phase. You try to put your best foot forward, you think you’re doing it right, and then you look at that and you go, “Are you kidding?”
That’s what’s heartbreaking to me. They spend all this money because they’re doing the right thing and then it’s wrong because they either didn’t have the architects that understood the law or the contractor‘s tolerances were out. The worst part of my job is having to say, “You guys are trying hard. You did a great job, but you’re going to have to tear all that out.”
There’s one distinction that struck me. You were talking about an ADA for Colorado or this area Rocky Mountain, six states, and yet you guys are in Georgia. The ADA service is six states, but you guys are nationwide?
Yes, we are. The Rocky Mountain ADA Center will only answer technical assistance, do trainings and all very limited to that six-state region, but we took that knowledge and went nationwide. The reason being because part of it is we know the law and the other part is we know how to manage data. When we have 10,000, 15,000 lines of records with maybe individually another 20,000 elements within that one record, you’re talking about massive databases. If you’ve got 5,000 to 6,000 pages of a PDF that you can’t use that data to work with you, that’s going to be collecting dust on your shelf and you’re never going to be able to get that first foot going forward.
I’m that massive organization. You’ve looked at all my parks and I’ve got this doorstop that you bring in for me, 6,000 pages. How do you take it how to point me?
We don’t provide the doorstop. We provide a living, breathing compliance management plan and transition plan database, which means you can cut and slice that data. For instance, let’s say this month we’re going to work on signs. The signs are always a big problem. You take that database and you turn on the light switches and everything is going to show you all the signs that need to be changed, where the facilities are and exactly where the location is, and a photograph showing what’s wrong. Not only that, it’s got the requirements that say that, “Something’s wrong, this is how you have to fix it to be right.” They dump that into an RFP, or Request For Proposal, and then get their contractors to bid realistic numbers because they have that data for a compliant project. A sign is an easy example, but let’s say you only have $10,000 to work on stuff for this one. We show you what has the highest priority of what’s the easiest thing to fix, get out there and adjust the door openers or move the trash cans away from the elevator buttons. That shows real progress for the DOJ and it’s very inexpensive.
We don't provide the doorstop. We provide a living, breathing compliance management plan.
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It’s funny initially you think about simple things. I wouldn’t have thought about the trash can. I don’t plan on breaking my leg anytime soon. We’ve talked about parks, we talked about Kaiser Permanente. Do you have a favorite one that you did?
Yes, I do. Not only was it a very big project, it wound up being $600 million, but it was the South Terminal redevelopment project of DIA which is now DEN. It’s not DIA anymore. That was fantastic because not only did we get to interact with these well-known architects, but the largest and most successful architect in the world hired us to be their accessibility consultant because they had that confidence in us. That was the hotel that almost made a mistake on the light switches. We went through every bit of that and it was great. I got to meet Mayor Hancock and go to the ribbon cutting ceremony.
It was rewarding to see that they were paying attention and that was important. That’s a very successful airport. Gensler had the faith and confidence in us and we remain Gensler’s accessibility consultant for a variety of projects. We train their architects. They’re a great bunch of people. We’ll go up there and do lunch and learns. That was rewarding. On the other side of that, hopefully I can talk about this, there’s a new project Oregon at the Denver Airport. We’re going to be the accessibility consultants for a well-known architect out of Spain. Here we go again and it’s going to be great.
If I’m an architect firm and I’ve got a project coming up, one of the key components of the project is the accessibility issues. What does that look like? Do they reach out to you guys and bring you onboard as part of the bid? How does that work between you and an architectural firm?
You know what a lot of them do? A lot of them think that they’ve got it figured out and they don’t need an accessibility consultant. They’ll go out there and engineers too. They’ll go out there and do a project without an accessibility consultant that understands the very fine details. Gensler didn’t hire us because they don’t know what to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They do know accessibility. They get it right but there’s some strange stuff like on the train platform, the truncated domes. We had to go upstairs to the access port to try to figure that out. They don’t want to mess with that. That’s too much time, money and effort to pay an architect to do that, so they hired us. They know that we’re going to get it right and they’re not going to get sued or anything else down the road because it’s not compliant. We developed a lot of relationships with them. What’s rewarding to me is over time, these architects are learning and understanding. They want to do the cool, creative stuff. Leave the bathrooms’ grab bars, door knobs, and all that stuff to us. We’ll get out there, make sure it’s right. We’ll have a good time helping them out.
We’ve talked about accessibility and we’ve talked about some of the big case studies that you worked on. For some of the folks out there going, “Why is this even important?”
I hear that time and time again. Everybody knows a person with a disability. We’re not getting any younger. The reason it’s important is because if it’s your mother or your wife or your grandmother that’s in a wheelchair, that’s important for them to get around and have the highest quality of life that anyone should expect. It’s important because we’ve evolved into a compassionate country that wants to not discriminate about that.
We think about many of us have this prototypical thought process about a person with a disability. On any given weekday or weekend, there’s a professional athlete hauled off the field with an ACL tear, a broken leg or any of that. He’s a disabled person or she’s a disabled person until they’re healthy again. You see them post-show, post-event and they’re on crutches or they’re not 100%. As you look at how we characterize disability, I think about my assistant in my office. At CrossFit, she fell off suddenly and blew an ACL. She was on crutches and she wasn’t 100% until she went through rehab. No one appreciates it until it happens to them.
You’ve been on crutches. You know what it’s like to have a hard time getting around. There are other aspects too, there are hidden disabilities. A lot of people don’t even think about that. There are those classes of what are considered to be disabilities. A lot of people think that the ADA is a wheelchair law. It’s all about physical accessibility. There’s so much more that goes into it, schools. Hidden disability, service handles all that stuff.
Anytime you see the favorite thing in the hurricane season is you’ll see the weather guy standing up there and next to him is this person signing. Some of them were pretty animated. Years ago as a kid, I never saw that. Now you see it.
You never saw any person with a disability that was an anchorman or whatever. That’s the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It lets us know we’re all real people no matter what circumstance we’re in. If sign language is the way that you communicate and it’s important or 911, it’s broad reaching. We have to understand that it’s not unreasonable to expect that. It’s not an entitlement. It’s a way of life.
I’m getting older, and as I get older, I get told things about my hearing from my wife. The reason phones are getting bigger is so I can see the numbers and dial. If you think about as you’re going through an airport and you’re listening close for your flight, if you’re hearing is not real good, the chance of you missing or not catching your flight, if you can’t read the sign. You think about the common application as the population ages and we’re all out there longer. If people don’t understand that it’s important, they’re going to get an inkling somewhere in there. The fun part about it is it’s clear that you’re passionate and convinced about it. What are the typical misconceptions that people either in the government, county space or in the business space have about what it is that you do?
The misconceptions are that it’s an unfunded mandate or whatever or it’s going to be impossible to comply with the ADA. There will be no way that they could ever afford to budget it. It’s a risk that they don’t want to unveil. They don’t want their community to be aware of the inaccessibility of their programs and services when it’s not all about that at all because the people with disabilities are already aware of that. The misconception is that it’s impossible to do. It’s going to cost millions of dollars to have a consultant come in and find it out. That if they hunker down and don’t say anything, the DOJ is not going to come around eventually, sooner or later, or the Highway Administration’s going to continue to fund their projects even though they don’t have a transition plan. I guess the misconception that keeps people from complying is the worst one because it’s a law, first of all. That’s how you stay out of a lawsuit. You comply with ADA and it’s not going to change. It’s not going to go away. You got to figure out, like we have over the years, how to make your community accessible.
We talked a little bit about the cost. The cost to get a clue is not high and then you talk about the cost of a fine, which was many times higher.
The worst cost is a psychological cost of having the Department of Justice on your conference call once a month, requiring photo documentation, verification that you’re fixing what they want, and that they’re going to be watching you for six years. I guess it’s probably been on probation or something. Not only that, it’s the visibility of this project because it’s always published. The city council members feel vulnerable, or the commissioners. The community thinks that it’s a disservice because they’re under settlement agreement because they didn’t comply.
The issue that strike, it’s the right thing to do. If you want to look at somebody and how they behave, look how they treat those that aren’t as fortunate or as capable. That to me is important. Who is your typical profile of a customer? We’ve talked about parks, HMOs, counties, airports.
Airports, businesses, restaurants, hotels, hospitality, the Federal Transportation Administration, we do work for them, even the Department of Justice. We were involved as a consultant for a landmark settlement agreement against the construction company, $10 million hit on that. They had to establish a $10 million fund to go and fix their non-compliant, multi-family housing communities. We visited 32 of those over the United States. We helped train the property owners what they needed to do. Multi-family housing is very unique because it’s covered by FHA-HUD and the ADA.
We had to go in there and help them make those communities compliant as best they could. That was an interesting project because this construction company ignored the Department of Justice. They had warnings and complaints against them and they said, “We’re going to build it this way.” Too bad. You don’t want to make anybody angry that way. They made an example out of them, and now multi-family construction has completely changed. We do a lot of work on those projects because it’s an odd accessibility law. For instance, you don’t have to have grab bars in the bathroom. You have to have blocks that you can put grab bars up.
We’ve gone long ways into this. I hope folks have a much better appreciation for how this comes together and what you guys do. What’s got you most fired up about looking into the future with what you’re doing?
What has me most fired up is that we can see true progress. I’m going to probably tell you five, ten times we’ve impacted 23 million people not because we’re superstars or anything like that. We’re devoted, we’re dedicated and we’d like to work with communities and restaurants and businesses. We’re all in this together, and to be able to make a difference that way is pretty incredible.
Most folks think when somebody has an accident and go, “That’ll never happen to me.” You go, “I’m not disabled. That’s never going to happen to me.” The reality, I don’t know what the percentage is, but if you stick around long enough, you’re going to show up.
One in six people today. That’s another reason. We have this gigantic number of people, 47 million plus that have disabilities. They work, they earn money, they have disposable income of $175 million. If you can’t get your head around it’s the right thing to do, turn it over. They’re customers. If you want to provide good customer service, make them happy. You can make money that way.
If you want to provide good customer service, make them happy.
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As I put my head on backwards, you know what I think about as a business person, you’re going like, “We cater to, we take care of, we value, we honor, and we’re set up for you guys and we welcome your business.”
The word gets out like a good restaurant, and their families, friends and everything else. That’s easy. Plus you get a tax credit. You’ll get a tax deduction up to $15,000 if you’re a qualified small business to make accessibility changes. For a restaurant or a small retail outlet or whatever, $15,000 will go a long way. We can teach you how to spend your money wisely too and prioritize what you need to fix. There are also other tax credits for other projects that are up to $25,000. There are a lot of reasons to do it economically, and there are a lot of reasons to do it ethically and morally too. For me, it’s easy and it’s an exciting company to be involved with because of their entrepreneurial spirit. These guys are a bunch of crazy people but they work hard and they have that same compassion and drive, and we want to help you.
I do a fair amount of these and I get to learn. The best part of doing the podcast is hearing the story. With that, is there something I should’ve asked you that I didn’t about what you’re doing or what’s coming?
Website accessibility, people don’t even consider that. We’re doing a redesign of the MTC website. We have to lead by example. It is a pain in the neck. It’s difficult. I feel like saying, “Forget that banner. I can’t make it accessible,” but that’s important too. That’s the new frontier, social media and all that stuff. We have to embrace technology. You have to have accessible websites that work on your phone and everything. That’s one thing that will be the wave of the future because the Department of Justice is not hesitating. I’m filing actions even without standards, which is remarkable.
The other thing is you’ve heard about it. I don’t like to use this word but they call it the ADA drive-by lawsuits. The reason they call it that is because if a person that has an attorney that has a disability or doesn’t have a disability, they can literally drive by through the parking lot and see that the accessible parking signs are the wrong height or the aisles are too narrow or whatever and they can file a suit right then and there. Their attorney is going to try to convince that business owner who doesn’t have a lot of money anyway to spend on stuff like that, if you give them $10,000 or $15,000, then they’ll go away. A lot of times they don’t even follow up on that, the thing that they sued on, to make sure it got fixed. That is becoming a wave across America.
Here’s my perspective on that. My first tip on how to avoid an ADA lawsuit? Comply. Make your place accessible and if you don’t know how to do it, we can help you do it. A lot of that is going to be free technical assistance. If you want to get down into it and be a successful business owner that manages the risk and limits their liability for lawsuits, welcome people with disabilities. Get your bathrooms lined out. We work for a lot of defense attorneys and a lot of people that might give them a bad taste in their mouth. We help defense attorneys address these lawsuits for a number reasons. First of all, the business owners, whether it’s a large nationwide chain or a little mom and pop restaurant or a retail store, they don’t know where to turn. The defense attorneys will hire us to validate the allegations and to also make sure the action that particular businesses is taking is not only going to comply with the ADA so they can address their lawsuit, but also identifies a lot of stuff that the plaintiff never discovered. The ultimate outcome of that, whether you work for the plaintiff or the defense attorney, is that whatever you do, you’re improving accessibility. That’s what our goal is. I’m not in favor of people going out and filing twenty lawsuits with the same language and the same everything’s boilerplate. Those attorneys are getting censored and disciplined because it’s not ethical. There’s some mystery behind it too because there are no civil penalties for a person with a disability filing a lawsuit. They’re not going to get $10,000 from the DOJ as an award or $20,000 or $50,000 or $1 million or whatever. They’re not supposed to get any money, but they do get their attorney’s fees. The attorneys are going out there and they’re doing pretty good.
I think about all of that and my sense of all of the discussion is be aware, be proactive. At a minimum, reach out. You can go to the center at a minimum. If you want to take some proactive steps, at a minimum, give you a call and do something.
Get started. We’ll teach you what to do. I’m not saying this out of a profit motive. It’s the right thing to do. Call the ADA Center. We can point you in the right direction. If you don’t have one dime to spend, that’s okay. We’ll still help you. That’s our mission through the Rocky Mountain ADA Center. We’re funded by NIDILRR and HHS. That’s what we have to do, train, research and figure out how we can improve accessibility and what areas are underserved as far as gaining accessibility, whether it’s websites or whatever. Give us a call. We can help you out. You don’t have to do anything about it. You can go on your way or we can help you and teach you how to comply with the law. You’re going to feel a lot better about yourself and your business.
From the business side of the house, you may get some customers. Kent, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time. Thanks for being on the show.
Thank you. Best job in the world. Great company and it’s for all the right reasons.
About Kent Kelley
Kent was promoted to the role of MTC president in October 2014 and also acts as Chief Operating Officer. He initially joined MTC in January of 2010, as Director of Consulting Services. Kent also serves as the project manager for several of the company’s larger consulting projects, with responsibility for strategic planning, budgeting and forecasting, contract management, accounting, financial analysis, and overall operations.
Bob Roark, Business Leaders Podcast
Kent Kelley, https://www.mtc-inc.com/
(Rocky Mountain ADA Center)
(Kent’s direct number)
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