Alex Lee speaks in front of the San Jose City Hall Rotunda, in San Jose, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2022, about the passage of AB2164. The bill empowers businesses to apply for funding to make the necessary improvements to become ADA compliant. (Heather Allen/Bay City News)

Local leaders and disability rights groups on Thursday celebrated the signing of a new law that will expand funding to small businesses to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act on the 32nd anniversary of the federal law that made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal.

That included access to public accommodations. All new construction after 1992 had to be fully compliant with ADA accessibility guidelines, including ramps for wheelchairs, handrails on stairs and walkways and providing handicap restrooms and parking spaces. Existing buildings would have to add accessibility accommodations to become compliant.

The new law, Assembly Bill 2164, was sponsored by Assemblymember Alex Lee, D-San Jose, and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, would allow California cities to continue to collect a $4 fee on all business tax registrations for disability access and education and to provide grants to small businesses to make accessibility improvements.

That fee was increased from $1 in 2018. The increase was set to expire in December, but AB 2164 makes the $4 fee permanent.

Lee said that San Jose is one of two cities that lead the state in ADA compliance lawsuits. In 2021, ADA litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California exploded. Filings tripled from 2020. ADA cases amounted to more than 25 percent of all new filings in the district that year, according to a Bay City News analysis.

“It can be hard for businesses to understand complex requirements, especially for those that might not have the resources or have limited English proficiency. But it’s critically important that they are in compliance because that also means that people with disabilities can access goods or services,” Lee said.

California State Assemblyman Alex Lee speaks in the Assembly chambers in Sacramento, Calif., in this undated photo. Lee represents California’s 25th Assembly District, which includes the Alameda County communities of Fremont and Newark, and the Santa Clara Communities of Milpitas, San Jose, and Santa Clara. (Photo courtesy of the Assembly Democratic Office of Communications and Outreach)

Lee, who said he has a large Asian constituency, said it can be hard for small businesses to understand the complexities of ADA compliance and to raise funds to make the improvements. It can be even harder, still, if those proprietors are not proficient in English.

According to Mayor Sam Liccardo, more than half of all small businesses in San Jose are immigrant-led. That is why the city launched the Disabled Access Improvement Grant Program that is staffed with Spanish and Vietnamese speakers.

That grant program, funded by the business tax registration fees, allows businesses within San Jose that have fewer than 50 employees and have more than three years left on their lease to apply for a grant to be reimbursed up to $8,000. The money goes to hire a Certified Access Specialist to provide a report detailing the improvements a business would need to make to comply with ADA guidelines.

The owners of Mon Siam Thai Massage were the first beneficiaries of the grant program.
Joy Reiken, the business manager of Mon Siam, said the grant program offset 77 percent of the $15,000 in accessibility improvements. Her business only had to pay $3,450.

The application process and improvements began while the spa was closed during the pandemic and unable to make income, making this grant critical to the survival of the business.

“I’m happy to report that Mon Siam Thai Wellness is thriving once again and we can serve every member of our community with confidence and our place of business is now fully compliant with ADA law,” Reiken said.

“I’m proud that we’ve come together, business and disability groups as well, the city and the state. I hope to see more cities and businesses continue working together and more programs starting up to ensure our businesses have the resources they need and to ensure that every California has equitable access to the goods and services we all enjoy,” Lee said.