- The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life.
- Most small businesses must adhere to Title I and Title III, but there are business-specific regulations as well.
- Key regulations for small businesses focus on communicating with customers, allowing service animals and ensuring physical accessibility.
- This article is for small business owners seeking to understand their ADA obligations to stay in compliance and properly assist their customers.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability. More of these individuals have the opportunity to live independently than ever before, and there are laws in place to protect their rights and freedom.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (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, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places open to the general public. The ADA’s protections are similar to those provided to individuals based on skin color, race, gender, national origin, age and religion.
Small business owners are responsible for meeting ADA requirements, but some regulations aren’t always obvious. We’ll explore ADA regulations that business owners may not be aware of so that they can comply with the law and provide their customers with the experience they deserve.
5 aspects of the ADA that business owners should understand
ADA regulations exist to give people with disabilities the same opportunities and rights as their able-bodied counterparts. Here are five ADA aspects small business owners should understand.
1. The ADA has business-specific requirements.
While ADA regulations protect all Americans with disabilities, each industry has different compliance requirements.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s ADA Update: A 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, or titles.
- Title I: Employment
- Title II: State and local government agencies and public transportation
- Title III: Public accommodations
- Title IV: Telecommunications
Most small businesses should be concerned with Titles I and III, while the others are more business-specific. It’s up to the owner to research any and all specific ADA requirements that may affect their business or apply to their industry.
2. Businesses must provide solutions for communicating with customers.
Communicating well with customers is crucial for business success, and that includes providing accommodations to communicate effectively with customers with disabilities.
According to the ADA, businesses are required to find practical solutions for communicating with customers who are blind or have low vision, are deaf or hearing impaired, or have speech disabilities.
For example, if customers have hearing differences, businesses must provide a sign language interpreter, oral interpreter or a video remote interpreting service to communicate with customers properly.
3. Businesses should ensure their websites are ADA-compliant.
While ADA compliance isn’t mandatory for every business website, if your business provides a service to customers, it should comply with ADA regulations. [Related article: 12 Tips for Building an Effective Business Website]
Consider if your business meets the following criteria:
- You provide a service for the benefit of the public.
- You are a state or local agency.
- You have more than 15 employees.
Even if your business’s website doesn’t meet the ADA’s compliance criteria, creating an ADA-compliant website ensures that you are serving your customers to the best of your ability.
The ADA’s guidance on website accessibility has caused confusion because there are no explicit standards. Instead, the ADA recommends looking at existing technical standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
You want to ensure an effective website design with feature accessibility so everyone can navigate it easily, including individuals with vision issues, hearing loss and other differences.
- Audio files: Audio files that accompany text can make your website easily accessible for viewers who are blind or have low vision.
- Alt tags for images: Alt tags are text descriptions in HTML code that help create a mental picture of the images on your website. The assistive devices vision-impaired people use can convert alt tags to Braille or read them aloud. Other images on your site – including dropdown menus, icons and buttons – also need alt tags.
- Images without text: Text-to-speech technology won’t be able to pick up on images that include text.
- Captions for videos: If you have video on your website, include captions to ensure deaf or hard of hearing visitors can understand and enjoy the content.
- Vision accommodations: For customers with vision challenges, make text-resizing options straightforward and use an optimal contrast ratio.
- Optimized navigation systems: To better understand your site’s accessibility, use the up and down arrows, tab button, and other keyboard commands to navigate your website rather than relying on your mouse. This will help you determine where to add text-based navigation for those who use a keyboard only.
- Error alerts: If your website includes online forms customers must fill out, add error alerts so they know precisely what to correct.
These are just a few ways to improve website accessibility. To learn more, consult the full WCAG.
For strong search engine website ranking, you should have a mobile-friendly website that customers can access and navigate from their smartphones.
4. Businesses must accommodate service animals.
“No pets” policies instituted by businesses, restaurants, hotels and theaters can inadvertently exclude people with disabilities who have service animals individually trained to perform tasks to assist them.
Small business owners should consider implementing a clear policy permitting service animals to ensure that customers and employees who rely on them are welcome in their establishment.
Business owners have the right to ask if a service animal is required because of a disability and what tasks it’s trained to do, but they may not ask about a person’s disability directly, ask for documentation or identification cards, or ask for a demonstration of the animal’s ability to perform its tasks.
The ADA also stipulates that service animals must be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless these devices interfere with their 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 you don’t have to allow them to enter your establishment. However, use your discretion to ensure all your customers feel comfortable and welcome.
When hiring employees, businesses must also comply with equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws. EEO laws protect against job discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin and disability.
5. Businesses must ensure physical accessibility.
The ADA requires that small businesses remove all architectural barriers when “readily achievable” or “easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense.” While that may seem self-explanatory, small business owners might not consider that those architectural barriers may extend to their parking lot.
If your establishment offers parking, you must provide accessible parking spaces, or parking spaces with an access aisle, allowing 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. Also, consider improving your parking lot lighting to ensure the area is well lit and safe.
Make sure that your business’s entrances, exits, restrooms, hallways and elevators can accommodate wheelchairs and mobility devices.
Tax credits and deductions for accessibility
Small businesses should factor ADA compliance into their tax planning. To help small businesses comply with ADA regulations, the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) includes a disability access credit (Section 44) for businesses with 30 or fewer full-time employees or a total revenue of $1 million or less in the previous tax year.
Costs associated with removing barriers or making other architectural alterations to improve accessibility, providing sign language interpreters, and making informational materials for your products and services available in Braille, on audio tape or in large print may be able to be written off.
IRC Section 190 also provides a tax deduction for removing architectural barriers for businesses of all sizes, with a maximum annual deduction of $15,000.
What does the ADA mean for remote work?
Various online business laws govern e-commerce businesses, including laws about remote work accommodations. As COVID-19 forced many businesses into remote work arrangements, more companies must now consider ADA accommodations.
Though courts previously did not see remote work as a “reasonable accommodation,” a spate of recent cases has muddied the waters. Small business owners today should remember a few key lessons:
- Reasonable accommodations are required. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations, including the potential of remote work, for employees with disabilities, even if the company does not have a broader remote workforce. [Learn more in our guide to managing a remote workforce.]
- Equal opportunity is crucial. If a company offers a remote work program, employees with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to participate.
- Not all positions must be accommodated. Businesses are not required to extend remote work programs developed during the pandemic as “reasonable accommodations” for all positions going forward.
- Craft job descriptions with care. Job descriptions are used as a guide for the accommodations that will be required, so you should craft them with care. Follow our tips to write better job descriptions.
Are my employers covered by Title I of the ADA?
Private employers with 15 or more employees must comply with Title I of the ADA.
Which disabilities are covered under the ADA?
The most common covered conditions include deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. The ADA takes disability history into account; for example, a person who has recovered from cancer or mental illness would be included.
Does an employer have to give preference to an applicant with a disability?
No. An employer can hire the candidate who is the best fit based on the stated job requirements.
Can I ask job applicants about potential disabilities to better understand their needs?
You cannot ask about potential disabilities in a job interview, but you can ask whether an applicant is able to perform specific functions outlined in the job description. [Learn the other illegal job interview questions to avoid.]
Can an employer hold employees with disabilities to the same standard as other employees?
Employers can hold all employees to the same productivity standards as long as they make reasonable accommodations to make the workplace accessible for employees with disabilities.
Who is responsible for ensuring physical accessibility compliance?
If a site is owner operated, the owner is responsible for accessibility requirements. If a business is leasing the space, both the landlord and tenant are legally responsible.
Going beyond compliance
From a legal standpoint, ADA compliance is essential to protect your business from discrimination lawsuits that could irreparably damage your reputation and cause you to lose customers and prospects. But, while businesses are obligated to meet the minimum regulation requirements only, going above and beyond ensures that everyone who comes in contact with your business is safe, and it sends a powerful signal that you care about all of your customers.
Julianna Lopez contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.