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The Spirit of the ADA and Your Business

SUMMARY: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has many regulations, and as a business owner, you may feel that you have a lot to do to meet ADA requirements. However, it may help to approach compliance not as a pile of to-do items, but instead as a way of building your brand and making all your customers feel welcome and included.

For business owners, understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is essential for complying with the law. The ADA was passed in order to break down barriers and make it so people with disabilities have equal access to a business’s facilities, programs, and services. Yet the spirit of the ADA is about inclusiveness as well as compliance. If you are merely complying with the ADA to meet a legal requirement, you’re missing the true purpose—or spirit—of the ADA.

Inclusiveness Takes Planning

Inclusiveness goes beyond ticking off items on a list. Inclusiveness won’t necessarily happen after a business modifies doorways, widens aisles, and creates large-print versions of materials. Making these physical and programmatic modifications to buildings and services are part of an overall plan to create a disability-friendly environment, but creating truly inclusive public spaces involves time, planning, and a comprehensive assessment of your business. It includes, among other factors, the image your company projects, the accessibility of your buildings, and whether all potential customers can access your goods and services. It also includes training staff on how your business plan relates to including people with disabilities, and an ongoing to commitment to reviewing the plan’s effectiveness—and revising it as needed.

Inclusiveness Takes Buy-In

The first step to any strategic planning process that strives to create diversity awareness and disability inclusiveness is securing agreement and buy-in from senior organizational management and other key decision makers. Diversity initiatives are more likely to succeed when there is a genuine, top-level commitment to organizational change. This sets the tone for everyone within the organization that disability inclusiveness is important in the company’s culture.

Inclusiveness Takes Action

An organization’s leaders can make change happen! Whether it’s empowering internal champions, identifying the right internal and external stakeholders and working groups, creating a reasonable accommodation policy, making the business case for diversity, or allowing staff to spend time on activities that enhance disability inclusiveness, it takes more than good intentions to effect change across an organization.

Inclusiveness Takes Ongoing Effort

Organizations, just like their employees and customers within and surrounding them, aren’t static: Needs change, priorities change, and strategies that once worked may need to be modified over time. It’s not enough to “check the box” on the checklist of disability inclusiveness and say that you’re done. Do you know whether your efforts are effective? How do you measure success? It’s important to have an ongoing post-implementation process in place to review, modify, and sustain the plan. 

Building a Physically Welcoming Environment

A physically welcoming environment starts when a person approaches the establishment, perhaps from the parking lot or from a bus stop. It includes an accessible route of travel within the building. Of course, a welcoming environment also includes the ability to use any special features of the building, such as bathrooms and water fountains. It might also include being able to take a wheelchair through a checkout line, or to sit next to a friend in a wheelchair at a theater. It is important to remember that an accessible building benefits everyone; even people without obvious disabilities may have needs that are best met with a more accessible environment.

Getting in the Door

Both literally and figuratively, ensuring that customers can enter your building “opens doors” to them, to any friends and family who may accompany them, and to increased business for your company.

An inaccessible entrance does more than limit or prohibit access for a potential customer, it also sends an unwelcoming message not only to customers with mobility challenges, but to all customers. Having an accessible main entrance sends the message that all are welcome at your place of business. Moreover, customers with physical disabilities are not the only ones who may appreciate an accessible entrance. Do parents pushing strollers patronize your business? What about people who have difficulty walking or climbing stairs? Or delivery people carrying heavy packages? An accessible entrance helps everyone!

A physically welcoming first impression involves more than just making sure the main entrance is accessible. An accessible entrance isn’t much good if there isn’t an adequate amount of accessible parking close to the entrance, an accessible transit drop-off point, and a clear route of travel to the entrance. For example, even a couple of short stairs between the parking lot and the main entrance can create a formidable obstruction. Are the sidewalks clear of obstructions? Do curbs on the route have curb cuts? As these considerations suggest, welcoming your customers begins well before they reach your front door!

Getting to the Action

The ADA is a civil rights law, not a building code. It requires businesses, state and local government entities, and non-profit organizations to provide people with disabilities with equal access to goods, services, programs, and events. An accessible main entrance is important, but if the individual is prevented from accessing goods and services, or from participating in an event or program that is available to the public, getting in the door is of little value. When considering physical accessibility, the building should allow people with disabilities to obtain goods and services and to participate in activities without assistance. The ADA requires public accommodations to remove barriers only when it is readily achievable, which means that barrier removal is easy to accomplish without much difficulty or expense. 

For example, a restaurant may need to rearrange tables, a department store may need to adjust the layout of racks and shelves in order to permit wheelchair access, or a theater must consider wheelchair-accessible seating areas that permit customers who use wheelchairs to sit with family and friends. In the latter example, providing accessible seating is not enough. The customer should have the option of sitting with family and friends just like anyone else who purchases a ticket. Accessible public spaces send the message to customers and the entire community that this business strives to make its goods and services available to all its customers.

Getting to Go: Accessible Restrooms

An important aspect of any business’s accessibility is its restrooms. Once the customer can enter through an accessible entrance and access the goods and services offered by the business, the next priority, according to the ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual, is to provide access to restrooms, if restrooms are provided for customers or clients. It is difficult for a customer to go to a restaurant or to a movie if they know they will be unable to use the restroom. Are there signs at inaccessible restrooms that provide directions to the accessible one? Is there a sign at the accessible restroom with the International Symbol of Accessibility? Is there a clear, accessible route to the restroom? Creating a physically welcoming environment involves an evaluation of the business in its entirety. 

Although the ADA is intended to provide access for individuals with disabilities, environments that are built with accessible and universal design features benefit a wide range of users, including older people, parents with strollers or who need diaper changing facilities, and people of different heights and weights, just to name a few. For example, the increased presence of family restrooms not only offers access for people with disabilities, but also space, privacy, comfort, and convenience for a variety of customers. It sends the message that all are welcome. 

Getting to Total Physical Accessibility

Once a business has created a physically welcoming, accessible environment for customers and clients with accessible doors, entrances, and restrooms, and access to the goods and services that are inside of the business, it’s time to cross the finish line and move toward total physical accessibility.

As a part of a self-evaluation of a business’s buildings and facilities, the business should look at what barriers remain to customers with disabilities: Are drinking fountains at a level that they can be reached and accessed by a wheelchair user or someone who is short in stature? Accessible drinking fountains also accommodate children. What about public telephones? Do fire alarms have both flashing lights and audible signals to accommodate patrons with vision or hearing loss? What about any automated teller machines (ATM) onsite? Or clothing store fitting rooms?

Remember that many people may not identify as having disabilities, but nonetheless have traits that limit their ability to access all that a business has to offer. For example, a customer or client could be short, tall, unable to read, or unable to stoop or bend. Making these other aspects of a business accessible to all customers is an element of customer service that creates a positive experience for all.

Providing Equal Opportunity for Involvement

Following the spirit of the ADA means providing people with disabilities with equal opportunities within the context of a business.

Equal Opportunity to Access Goods and Services

The ADA requires public accommodations to take steps to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to their goods and services. This could involve making reasonable changes to policies, practices, and procedures; providing communication aids and services; and removing physical barriers to access when it is readily achievable to do so.

Equal Opportunity to Participate and Benefit

Ultimately, the spirit of the ADA is one of inclusion, of non-discrimination, of providing individuals with disabilities the same opportunities to participate in and benefit from the goods and services offered. Therefore, the ADA prohibits discriminatory denial of services or benefits to individuals with disabilities.

This does not mean that the person with a disability must achieve an identical result or the same level of achievement as a person without a disability, but it does mean that they must have the opportunity to participate. The ADA is not about special treatment; rather, it is about offering equal access to participate in one’s community. For example, an accessible restroom can be utilized by anyone, not just a wheelchair user. A person who uses a wheelchair doesn’t have the right to “cut the line”; they can wait in line just like everyone else. Similarly, this same patron may not be able to perform all the exercises in an exercise class, but they should be allowed equal opportunity to join and participate.

Creating equal opportunities for customers and clients with disabilities to participate in the goods, services, facilities, privileges, and benefits of a public accommodation sets a welcoming tone for everyone. Just like any other customer, a customer with a disability may bring along their family and friends to patronize the business. 

Equal Opportunity for Integration

A primary goal of the ADA is the equal participation of people with disabilities in everyday American society. People with disabilities must be integrated “to the maximum extent appropriate.” An important way to ensure that customers and clients with disabilities feel welcome is to allow them access to the same programs and services as everyone else.

There are circumstances where separate programs are allowed under the ADA; for example, a health club can have separate swim classes for children with disabilities, but it cannot deny them access to the regular program. They may derive a different benefit from the class, but should still have the opportunity to be included and participate. 

Meeting Needs through Flexibility

At times, meeting the needs of a person with a disability has nothing to do with creating a welcoming physical environment. It has to do with being willing to adjust what you do. A little flexibility and creativity can go a long way toward including people who may need to access your business differently from the typical customer.

Reasonable Modification to Programs and Policies

Developing a more inclusive environment involves more than altering physical spaces. Watch out for policies that assume that people are able-bodied (able-ism). For example, a retail store could have a policy of not taking special orders for out-of-stock merchandise unless the customer comes to the store in order to sign the order. Under the ADA, the store would be required to reasonably modify its procedures to allow taking special orders by phone from people with disabilities who cannot visit the store. This reasonable modification not only follows the law but is also good for business.

A business is never required to make a modification that would fundamentally alter the nature of the business, such as providing home delivery to customers with disabilities if it does not already offer this service to its other customers. 

Ensuring Effective Communication

Communication with customers and clients is an important part of any business operation. It ensures that patrons receive the goods or services they need, promotes goodwill, and fosters a positive public image. Because different people have different preferred communications and learning styles, a business should communicate in more than one way.

The ADA states that in order to provide equal access, a public accommodation must provide auxiliary aides and services where necessary to promote “effective communication.” For example, an usher at a play guides a patron who is blind to his seat in the theater, or a sales clerk exchanges written notes with a customer who is Deaf who asks about the availability of a product.

These are examples not only of a business providing effective communication under the ADA, but also of a business offering good customer service. Creating a welcoming, inclusive environment is about finding a way to meet patrons’ needs, even if it means doing something that is not customarily done. Customers appreciate it, the general public notices it, and the business itself benefits from selling goods and services to all segments of the community.

Welcoming Service Animals

Welcoming service animals is another way to not only follow the law, but to provide enhanced customer service. A service animal is any dog (or miniature horse) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Tasks typically performed by service animals include guiding people with impaired vision and alerting individuals with impaired hearing to auditory cues, such as alarms. Tasks can also include providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or retrieving dropped items.

[ Read: The ADA and Service Animals ]

The Value of Respect

Creating a welcoming, accessible environment is not just about promoting goodwill, it’s also good for business. An accessible business is safer and more user-friendly for everyone, including older customers, families with children, and people with disabilities. Respect starts with knowing and understanding one’s customer base, and the potential to expand the customer base. People with disabilities have significant money to spend, and along with them comes their families and friends.

Respect includes an understanding of the basics of disability etiquette.

Inclusiveness Takes Planning, Buy-in, Action, and Ongoing Effort

For a business, including people with disabilities provides access to a wider clientele, creates an environment that is more welcoming to everyone, and enhances the business’s public image. These goals cannot be achieved simply by crossing off items on a list. It involves careful, ongoing consideration about whether the goal of truly including people with disabilities is being met. It also requires a willingness to be flexible and the cultivation of respect for people with disabilities.

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