Providing the details is Kevin W. Williams, legal program director for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which first took on Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister's parent company, several years ago.
"We filed our complaint in 2009," Williams notes. "The issue was that we had members of my organization who use wheelchairs who had either been to a Hollister store or wanted to go into one and experienced a problem."Hollister stores were all built after the Americans with Disabilities Act," he points out. "The ADA was passed in 1990, and Hollister stores didn't exist until the year 2000. And a lot of them took what was a flat, level space in a shopping mall or outdoor shopping center -- and then, at the front entrance, they built these porches that have two steps. You have to walk up the steps to get up the porch, and then walk down two steps to get into the store."
This concept was important to Hollister, Williams notes: "They've said they don't advertise; they have a website, but that's it. So their whole branding idea, and the concept itself, revolves around what they refer to as the in-store experience. They want you to feel like you're stepping into a California beach shanty, and the words 'stepping into' are very meaningful to them. They think it's very important to have people have that experience -- one that's different from all the other stores."
Problem is, the steps make the main entrance inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. For that reason, Hollister stores have "separate entrances that somebody in a wheelchair can get into," Williams continues. "On either side of this porch-like structure, there are what look like window shutters. Next to the shutter doors at Park Meadows, for example, there's this tiny little button on the right-hand side, and if you look closely -- it's hard to see, because it blends in with the wall -- there is a wheelchair symbol. And if you push it, you're supposed to be able to get into the store that way."Williams, who personally uses a motorized wheelchair, sees several problems with this alleged solution, though. The lack of signage directing those in wheelchairs to the other entrance effectively prevents them from using it: "You can't see the button unless you know it's there and know what to look for," he says. In addition, he cites examples of times when this alternative entrance was either left locked or was impossible to use because of displays placed on the other side.
And then there's the more fundamental issue of the message the design sends to those in wheelchairs.
"Back in 1954, the Supreme Court, when dealing with race discrimination, said that separate is inherently unequal," he allows. "And the ADA says you can't provide people with disabilities separate accommodations and benefits in new construction. Everywhere someone without a wheelchair can go, a person with a wheelchair should be able to go."
For these reasons, he argues that the Hollister porches insult the disabled community. "Maybe the entrance is inviting and wonderful to the cool kids who can walk up and down stairs. But for people who use wheelchairs, it's a slap in the face. It says to them, 'We're going to build a store you can't get into. Tough luck.'"Continue for more about the Hollister judgment, including the permanent injunction.