The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the major federal law that guarantees equal treatment for people with all sorts of disabilities or handicaps, including blindness or severe vision impairments. One part of the ADA, called "Title III," looks to make sure people with vision problems can enjoy "places of public accommodation" just as much as people who aren't legally blind.
Practically every privately owned business is covered by Title III, but retail stores, lodging establishments (hotels, motels, and inns), and restaurants are the primary focus points of the law when it comes to people who are legally blind.
There's one big exception, though. The ADA doesn't cover owner-occupied lodging establishments that rent out five rooms or less. A good example is the typical "bed and breakfast." Nonetheless, it makes good business sense for such businesses to make their establishments accessible to the blind and vision-impaired.
What You Have To Do
The ADA has specific requirements for making your business "accessible" or usable by your vision impaired customers. They apply to newly constructed buildings (those put to use on or after January 26, 1993), and alterations to existing building made on or after January 26, 1992.
These specifications are lengthy and cover a broad range of things, from the size of doorways to providing an emergency communication system in elevators. Be sure to check the specifications when building or renovating your business space.
Existing businesses are required to remove barriers that make it difficult for disabled persons to use or access the premises, so long as the removal is readily achievable. That means it can be done without a lot of trouble and expense. A good example is installing Braille plates on the number buttons in your hotel's elevator.
Complying with the ADA can be tricky. If you're thinking of building new or renovating your old space, talk to an attorney or an experienced and licensed architect to make sure it gets done right.
Change Rules and Policies
You have to make reasonable changes to your standard rules and policies to allow blind and vision-impaired patrons to take advantage of your products or services. For example, even if your restaurant or hotel has a "no pets" policy, you have to let a blind customer bring his service dog into the building.
You also have to provide auxiliary or additional services, so long as they're not unreasonably difficult or expensive to provide. In such cases, an alternative needs to be found. For example, restaurants may provide Braille menus, but if that would be a financial burden, then servers should offer to read the menu to blind patrons. Other examples of auxiliary aids include:
- Using large print on bills, receipts, and hotel registration documents for those with vision impairments
- Using tape recordings or automated telephone messages to explain hotel check-in and check-out procedures, contacting maid or room service, how to change thermostat settings, etc.
- Having staff members walk though and explain the layout of the dining area or the guest's hotel room
Businesses get federal tax breaks for their efforts to comply with the ADA. Small businesses get a tax credit equal to 50% of "qualifying expenses" between $250 and $10,250. The credit is capped at $5,000. Small businesses are those with total revenues of $1,000,000 or less in the previous tax year or those with 30 or fewer full-time employees. Qualifying expenses include the costs of providing Braille, large print, and audio tape materials for patrons.
All businesses big and small may get a tax deduction. The deduction is available for the costs of removing architectural or transportation barriers to make the business more accessible. The costs of buying and installing Braille sings for hotel room doors, common bathrooms, stairwells, and emergency evacuation plans are good examples.
It's hard for anyone to complain about the lofty goals of the ADA. Everyone should have equal and fair access to goods and services offered to the public. People who are legally blind shouldn't be turned down service, charged higher rates, or made to feel unwelcome simply because of their impairments.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Is complying with the ADA my responsibility as the business owner or is it my landlord's?
- Can I be held responsible for ADA violations by a business I bought but didn't know about until after I bought it?
- Can I charge a fee for any extra cleaning made necessary by a service animal?