Five essential facts about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

With so much in the news recently about NYC businesses being sued for non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we put together a list of of five facts to shed more light on the federal civil-rights law.

1. What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil-rights law instituted in 1990. It protects people with disabilities in many areas of public life, such as employment, education, and access to public places–including businesses. The law’s intent is to eliminate physical and behavioral barriers, and to foster greater inclusion and equality in society.

2. My business is an old building. Am I grandfathered in?

Not exactly. The ADA does not offer blanket exemptions to any businesses serving the public; everyone must do their part to accommodate people with disabilities. However, the law recognizes that small businesses, and those housed in older buildings, may lack the financial ability or the physical space to make necessary changes. A business must ensure a certain baseline of access as a cost of doing business in today’s environment. However, improvements beyond that point are evaluated against the principle of what is “readily achievable” based on their means to pay and the available technology. Remember–it is always easier and cheaper to build accessibility into your original store design rather than adding it later!

3. Does this affect my customer base?

Yes. According to the American Community Survey administered in 2017 by the Census Bureau, nearly 11% of New York City residents identify as having some sort of disability. This could be a mobility impairment necessitating the use of a wheelchair, it could be deafness or low vision, an “invisible” disability like dyslexia, or a temporary condition like pregnancy or a broken leg. Undoubtedly, some of the people who want to patronize your business will have a disability. If your business isn’t accessible, you may never know you missed them!

4: Where should I start?

Start at the front door–make sure any patron who wants to enter can come in. (If this is absolutely not possible because of a flight of steps and no elevator, post a sign visible from the front door that indicates you offer curbside service, and a number to call.) Beyond that, consider widening store aisles; adding grab bars in the restroom; update your website so it can be interpreted by a screen reader app; and train your staff in policies that can benefit people with disabilities–like allowing the disabled person’s care companion to assist them in a fitting room. Access does not stop at the front door.

5. How do I avoid a lawsuit?

Unfortunately, you may have heard that some businesses on Atlantic Avenue and elsewhere in NYC have received lawsuits for their non-compliance with the ADA. We are sad to confirm that this is true. Lawsuits are the only formal mechanism that the ADA law lays out for people to bring complaints when they feel they have been discriminated against. There are some unscrupulous lawyers who have used this angle to file lawsuits in bulk and make a lot of money from small business owners who were unaware they were not in compliance. To protect yourself–and to serve as many customers as possible–be proactive and visible about making your business welcome to people with disabilities. Install a ramp, reevaluate your store layout, and train your staff. Educated business owners are less-attractive targets for questionable lawsuits.

If you’re hungry more information on ADA compliance, please check out these sources:

Comments are closed.