The Juneau Chamber of Commerce will lead chambers around the state in implementing a new program to encourage business compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Blue Star Project will allow businesses to market their compliance with the 13-year-old civil rights law.
"I was a little bit hesitant when I first heard about this public/private partnership," Todd Saunders, executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, told chamber members at a luncheon Friday. "But this is a project that Juneau should be proud to be the starting point for."
The Juneau chamber will administer the Blue Star Project for businesses throughout the state. Businesses will work with the chamber, not with government entities, to ensure compliance with ADA regulations.
The materials required to complete the businesses' self-assessment process were created by the state and include a detailed checklist of ADA-related standards along with an interactive CD-ROM with audio and full-motion video showing businesses how to conduct each stage of the assessment process, the chamber said.
"As a sole business dealing with a regulating industry, you are afraid to push for things because there might be retributions from that agency," said chamber member Jim Scholz, sales manager for Northland Services. "That's the nice thing about having the chamber speak on your behalf."
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 took effect with regulations in 1992, all businesses that provide services and accommodations to the general public have to be handicap-accessible and cannot discriminate against employment applicants who have physical or mental disabilities.
Businesses built before 1992 can receive tax credits for modifying existing buildings to be handicap-accessible.
Don Brandon, the ADA coordinator for the state, created the Blue Star Project as a way for businesses to regulate themselves in their ADA compliance.
"What's wrong with trusting a business to do it on its own?" Brandon asked chamber members Friday.
A car accident rendered Brandon unable to walk at the age of 17, so he has spent 33 years trying to figure out how to make public buildings accessible for people with disabilities.
Instead of punishing businesses for not being in compliance with ADA regulations, Brandon wanted to reward businesses for doing their part, he said.
"My motivation is basically that I just didn't want businesses to live in fear of something that was designed to be a greater opportunity for more and more people," he said.
Businesses in the Blue Star Project will receive a decal for their store window to let people know the business is accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Businesses that have services for the blind and deaf will have an additional star on the decal, and businesses that employ people with disabilities will receive a third star.
Participating businesses also will receive free marketing in the form of advertisements listing handicap-accessible businesses in state tourism magazines and on cruise ships.
Qualifying businesses also will be entered in an annual awards program, with special businesses being honored by the state every October during National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The Juneau chamber will first give local businesses the opportunity to get Blue Star certification, then will take the program to other chamber businesses in the state.
Mike Story, president of the Juneau chamber, said in a statement that the Aspen Hotel, near the Juneau Airport, and the Twisted Fish restaurant downtown, already have completed the certification process.
"With each business it took us about an hour to complete the assessment," Story said. "They're the first businesses anywhere in the state to be certified by the Blue Star Project. I think that's exciting."
The state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation put up about $30,000 to get the Blue Star Project started, Brandon said.
After the first year of the program, its costs, which should be significantly less than $30,000 per year, will be covered by seven state departments, Brandon said.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.