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Crawford woman contributes to research into disability access

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Abbey Eckstein

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, protects people with disabilities against discrimination in employment settings, state and local government services, and public-serving businesses.

As vacation rental properties such as Air-bnb and VRBO grow in demand and straddle the line between private residences and public business, how or if ADA applies was -- until recently -- somewhat unclear. Law students at the University of Montana set out to provide some answers to this and other ADA questions.

Joshua Thornton, a Juris Doctor candidate for 2020 in UM's Alexander Blewett III School of Law from Bismarck, N.D., conducted research to examine the applicability of the ADA to vacation rental properties. He found vacation rental properties are subject to ADA, but only if they have more than five rooms for rent.

This project, like several before it, provides UM law students opportunities to make a positive contribution to the understanding of disability policy and legal understanding in the U.S.

"It's important to note that the research results are not legal opinions, but summaries of legal cases and legal discussion forums," said Martin Blair, executive director of UM's Rural Institute. "Our students compiled and summarized information that is often spread out and sometimes contradictory. Better understanding of disability policy results from compiling current information from reliable sources into a user-friendly resource."

Lillian Alvernaz, a recent UM law school graduate from Glasgow, and Abbey Eckstein, a Juris Doctor candidate for 2019 from Crawford, also worked on ADA-related research projects.

Alvernaz took on the task of summarizing so-called "drive-by" ADA lawsuits in the Rocky Mountain region (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming), finding that only Utah and Colorado have seen this type of legal activity. "Drive-by" lawsuits occur when lawyers and plaintiffs sue businesses to acquire rapid settlements for what are often argued as minor access barriers.

Eckstein compiled and summarized a list of all disability-related law resources in the region, which is currently used by staff at the Rocky Mountain ADA Center to help people with disabilities and community advocates connect with legal resources in six states.

The research projects were funded through a partnership between the UM Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities and the Rocky Mountain ADA Technical Assistance Center in Colorado Springs. This collaboration focuses on improving knowledge about how the ADA assures equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

UM's Rural Institute engages in research, provides education and interdisciplinary training, and develops model services that improve the skills, abilities and quality of life of people with disabilities in rural communities, including their families and those who support and partner with them.

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