According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 Americans has some sort of disability, but people with disabilities have more freedom and opportunity to live independently than ever before, and there are laws in place to help protect that freedom.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was enacted on July 26, 1990. The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life: jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
The ADA grants civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals based on color, race, sex, national origin, age and religion. While some ADA regulations may seem obvious, there are some that small business owners may not be aware of.
Here are some ADA regulations that small business owners should familiarize themselves with.
Americans with Disabilities Act compliance is business-specific as well as a general law
While ADA regulations apply to all Americans with disabilities, each business industry has different compliance requirements they're expected to follow. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Primer for Small Business, most businesses that serve the public – including stores, restaurants, schools and museums – must comply with the ADA.
The ADA comprises four main sections:
- Title I: Employment
- Title II: State and Local Government Agencies and Public Transportation
- Title III: Public Accommodations
- Title IV: Telecommunications
Most small businesses need to be concerned with Titles I and III, while the others are more business-specific.
Communicating with customers
Communicating well with customers is crucial to succeeding in business, but some small business owners might not be prepared for communicating with customers who are blind or have low vision, those who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those who have speech disabilities.
According to the ADA, businesses are required to find practical solutions for communicating with customers who have vision, hearing or speech disabilities. It's ultimately a business's responsibility to provide the sign language or oral interpreter or a VRI service necessary to properly speak with customers.
Communicating with customers goes beyond speaking with them in person. Not only does your physical location need to comply with ADA regulations, your website does, too. Unfortunately, the lack of ADA compliance standards surrounding this prevents some businesses from making website accessibility the priority it should be.
According to Kevin Richards, CEO and founder of Ventura Web Design, "Most businesses could very easily bring their sites into compliance, and the side benefit of doing so is that Google, or other crawlers, would most likely give those sites a boost to their SEO. It's also just the right thing to do, which should be enough reason by itself."
To ensure total accessibility to your website, everyone needs to be able to navigate it easily, including individuals living with vision, hearing and other impairments.
"Everyone should be able to shop equally," said Jessie Jackson, senior consultant for FitForCommerce. "It's better for everyone to be able to access your content, and if they can't, you are doing yourself a disservice as well as the customer."
Include audio files, alt text tags for the images on your site and videos to convey your message to all visitors.
- Alt tags for images: Alt tags are text descriptions in HTML code that help create a mental picture of the images on your website. This ensures that the assistive devices used by vision-impaired people convert the alt tags to Braille or read them aloud. Other images on your site, including dropdown menus, PDF icons and functional buttons, displayed as graphical elements need their own alt tags.
- Captions for videos: If you have video on your website, include captions to ensure hearing-impaired visitors can understand and enjoy the content.
To better understand your site's accessibility, use the up and down arrows, the tab button, and other commands on the keyboard to navigate your website rather than relying on your mouse. This will help you determine where you can input additional text-based navigation for those who solely use the keyboard rather than a mouse. You can refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure your website complies with accessibility standards.
Businesses, restaurants, hotels and theaters often inadvertently exclude people with disabilities because of their "no pets" policies. According to the ADA, service animals are dogs that are individually trained to perform tasks directly related to a person's disability.
By having a clear policy permitting service animals, small business owners can ensure customers and potential staff who rely on service animals are welcome in their establishment. As a business owner, you have the right to ask if the service dog is required because of a disability and what tasks the dog is trained to do. However, you may not ask about a person's disability directly, ask for documentation or identification cards, or ask for a demonstration of the dog's ability to perform its tasks.
The ADA also stipulates that service animals must be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless these devices interfere with the service animal's work, or the person's disability prevents them from using these devices.
Under the ADA, comfort, therapy and emotional support animals don't meet the definition of a service animal and, therefore, don't need to be allowed entry into business establishments.
Van-accessible parking spaces
The ADA requires that small businesses remove all architectural barriers when it's "readily achievable" to do so or "easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense." While that may seem pretty self-explanatory, small business owners might not consider that those architectural barriers may extend to their parking lot.
If your establishment offers parking, you have to provide accessible parking spaces, or parking spaces that have an access aisle, which allows a person using a wheelchair or another mobility device to get in and out of their car or van. One of every six spaces must be van accessible. Small businesses with very limited parking (four or fewer spaces) must have at least one accessible parking space, but signage isn't required.
Possible tax credit and deductions for making your business more handicap accessible
To help small businesses comply with ADA regulations, the IRS Code includes a disability access credit (Section 44) for businesses with 30 or fewer full-time employees, or with total revenues of $1 million or less in the previous tax year.
Expenses that are eligible for a write-off include the costs involved with removing barriers or other architectural alterations to improve handicap accessibility, providing sign language interpreters, or making informational materials for your products and services available in Braille, audiotape or large print. IRS Code Section 190 also provides a tax deduction for removing architectural barriers for businesses of all sizes; however, the maximum annual deduction is $15,000.
Complying with ADA regulations and accommodating individuals with disabilities ultimately means empathizing with employees and customers about the challenges they face. From a legal standpoint, ADA compliance is essential to protect your business from discrimination lawsuits that could irreparably damage your reputation and turn customers and prospects away.
While businesses are only obligated to meet the minimum regulation requirements, going above and beyond ensures that everyone who comes in contact with your business is safe.