Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the third Thursday of May, is dedicated to celebrating and raising awareness of the products, services and environments that are accessible to people with disabilities. More than 50 million Americans live with disabilities, but people with disabilities have more freedom and opportunity to live independently now than ever before, and there are laws in place to help protect that freedom.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a Federal civil rights law that prohibits businesses from discriminating against people with disabilities. While some ADA regulations may seem obvious, there are some that small business owners may not be aware of, and possibly not in compliance with.
Of course, it makes sense that such regulation would prohibit the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday actions such as shopping, eating at a restaurant, going to the movies, etc. But there are other rules you may not know. Here are four ADA laws small business owners should know.
1. Communicating with customers.
Successful communication with customers is necessary for doing 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. That's doubly true when you think about websites.
According to the ADA, businesses are required to take whatever steps necessary 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.
Your company website needs to have a text only option. It needs to have easily resizable text with a high contrast mode. Photos need to have text descriptions and videos should include audio descriptions and transcripts.
2. Service animals.
Businesses, restaurants, hotels and theaters often inadvertently exclude people with disabilities because of their "no pets" policies, which often lumps service animals together in the same category. According to the ADA, service animals are dogs that are individually trained to perform tasks directly related to a person's disability. Note: Service animals are not the same as emotional support animals, in a legal sense. [Read related story: Service Animals and Small Business: What You Need to Know]
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. The ADA 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.
3. 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. Specifically, 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.
4. 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 write-off include the cost of removing barriers or other architectural alterations to improve handicap accessibility, providing sign-language interpreters or making informational materials for your products and services in Braille, audio tape or large print. IRS Code Section 190 also provides a tax deduction for removing architectural barriers for businesses of all sizes, however the maximum deduction amount per year is $15,000.
Think your small business is totally in compliance? You can hire a qualified agency and have them perform an audit of your business. Is likely worth it to check before you get hit with a lawsuit.
If you still have questions about your business being in compliance, the Department of Justice offers a toll-free information line (800-514-0301). They can answer your questions, and also illuminate potential tax credits and deductions you may be eligible for to offset the costs of providing access to those with disabilities.