Business Law

The ADA & Your Disabled Customers

You probably know that there are various state and federal anti-discrimination laws that make it unlawful for you to make employment decisions, such as firing an employee or refusing to hire an applicant, based upon his or her handicap or disability. One such law is the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which most employers recognize immediately.

As a small business owner you should also know how the ADA protects your disabled customers, such as by requiring you to make your store accessible by customers who are in wheelchairs.

"Public Accommodations"

A specific part of the ADA applies to public accommodations, which are private businesses--not government owned--that provide goods or services to the public. Almost every type of privately owned business, no matter how big or small, that serves or sells something to the public is a "public accommodation" under the ADA, including things like:

  • Inns, hotels and motels
  • Restaurants and bars
  • Movie theaters and concert halls

So, if you own, operate, rent or lease to a business that serves the public, you're covered by the ADA's public accommodation requirements, which generally require you to take steps so that handicapped or disabled customers can have access to the goods and services you sell.

What You Need to Do

If you own or operate a business that serves the public, you have to remove physical "barriers" that are "readily achievable." Readily achievable means that you can remove the barrier without much difficulty or expense.

Architectural barriers are physical features that limit or prevent people with disabilities from entering your business or getting the goods or services that you're offering to the public. These can include:

  • Parking spaces or in-store aisles or lanes that are too narrow for use by persons in wheelchairs
  • Telephones and countertops that are too high and make it difficult for persons in wheelchairs to reach
  • Steps at a store entrance, which make it nearly impossible for a wheelchair to use and difficult for persons with canes or walkers

Some examples of physical barriers that can be removed without much difficulty or expense include:

  • Placing a ramp over or next to the few steps that lead to your store's entrance
  • Installing grab bars where only routine reinforcement of the wall is required
  • Designated parking spaces for disabled customers, if you provide parking facilities for other customers
  • Changing door handles so that it's easier for persons with mobility handicaps or arthritis to enter your store
  • Rearrange your floor layout (like restaurant tables or clothing racks and shelves) so that that lanes or aisles can be navigated by persons in wheelchairs or those using canes or walkers

In addition, you might have to provide auxiliary aids and services for customers with hearing or vision impairments. Such aids and services can be simple and inexpensive, such as providing:

  • Qualified interpreters, assistive listening devices, note-takers, and written materials for individuals with hearing impairments
  • Qualified readers, taped texts, and Braille or large print materials for customers with vision impairments

The ADA doesn't require that you provide any auxiliary aid that would result in an undue burden on you or fundamentally change the goods or services you provide to the public. However, for most small businesses, it's rarely a problem to provide pen and paper to make it easier for your employee to communicate with a deaf customer, for example.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) can give you detailed guidance (DOJ guidance) on removing barriers and making your business more accessible.

New Construction & Alterations

Under the ADA, newly constructed buildings (those that were first occupied on or after January 26, 1993) must meet or exceed the minimum requirements set out in the DOJ guidance documents. These include things like size of door entrances and number and size of parking spaces. In addition, alterations or renovations made on or after January 26, 1992 must also follow the DOJ guidance. So, if you install a new carpet, for example, it has to be securely attached to the floor, and the carpet "pile" can be no more than one-half an inch.

Tax Benefits

To help you comply with the ADA, there's a federal tax credit for small businesses that have:

  • Total revenues of $1,000,000 or less in the previous tax year, or
  • 30 or fewer full-time employees

The credit is $5,000 annually for the cost of providing sign language interpreters, readers, Braille or large-print materials.

There are other tax incentives as well:

  • You might be able to take the Work Opportunity Tax Credit if you hire certain targeted low-income groups, such as persons receiving Supplemental Security Income. The credit is for up to $2,400 for each qualifying employee who works at least 400 hours during the tax year.
  • Also, there's the Architectural/Transportation Tax Deduction, which is for up to $15,000 for businesses of any size for the costs of removing barriers for people with disabilities, such as providing accessible parking spaces, ramps, and curb cuts.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Who's entitled to the tax ADA-related tax credits and deductions, me, as the business owner, or my landlord--Does it depend at all on my responsibilities under my commercial lease?
  • Does my store have to comply with the ADA at the time I open for business, or can I make it "accessible" in stages throughout the year?
  • Can I pay one waitress more than the others if she interprets sign language for my hearing impaired customers?
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