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Complying with the ADA: What you don’t know can hurt you

For meetings and event planners, selecting a venue can include any number of factors such as location, proximity to the airport, nearby hotel accommodations and ease of accessibility for disabled attendees. For venues, the same groups filling empty seats with delegates can also empty wallets.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 24 years ago as a federal law. The regulations went into effect for all affected businesses and organizations on Jan. 26, 1992. Twenty-two years after the date of enforcement, how much do you know about the ADA and your obligations to comply with this wide-sweeping federal law?

Let’s start with the basics:

What is the ADA?
It’s a federal civil rights law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment, access to government services, access to goods and services from the private sector and access to telecommunications.

Who has to comply with the ADA?
For the purposes of this audience, the private sector – otherwise known in ADA lingo as a Title III Public Accommodation has to remove barriers in the built environment as well as policies and procedures that prevent the full participation of someone with a physical or mental disability. A “short list” of Title III Public Accommodations include retail, hospitality, restaurants, movie theaters and assembly areas including sports, entertainment and cultural venues, just to name a few.

When was compliance required?
A common myth of the ADA is that any existing building designed and constructed before the ADA (1992) is “grandfathered in” and barrier removal is not required. FALSE. Any facility designed or constructed prior to Jan. 26, 1992, was to begin the process of “readily-achievable barrier removal” on that day. As a process, it is ongoing and must continue until barriers are removed either through renovation, alteration or new construction.

Why is compliance important?
The ADA is a complaint-driven law, meaning that anyone with a disability or an organization on behalf of a person with a disability can file a claim against a facility either with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) or directly in federal court. If the DOJ determines that your facility is non-compliant, the initial fine is $75,000, potential compensatory and punitive damages and the requirement to correct the non-compliant items identified during their investigation. Subsequent violations are fined at $150,000. This is what happens if you wait to be sued.

Any and all efforts made to correct the areas of non-compliance demonstrate what the DOJ calls a “good faith effort.”

There’s another important reason to comply and make your facilities accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. They represent one of the largest and fastest growing minorities in the U.S. and represent spending power in excess of $170 million a year. Can you afford to turn away that business?

What does compliance include?
Most of the emphasis of the ADA and its barrier removal requirements focus on barriers in facilities that impact individual with mobility disabilities, such as those using canes, walkers and wheelchairs. One small step at an entrance creates a barrier; lack of accessible parking spaces and access aisles, multiple steps, revolving doors and small toilet stalls are several examples of obvious and easily-identified barriers. More subtle barriers include heavy doors, lack of Braille on signage, lack of ramps or elevators between levels in a facility, and finally, lack of dispersed accessible seating in an assembly area.

The requirement to provide accessible seating for individuals with disabilities begins with a venue that has more than four fixed seats. The required number of accessible seats is based on the total number of seats in a venue. All areas of a venue (including suites, luxury or club boxes) are required to have accessible seating based on the number of seats available. The requirement to provide “dispersed” seating also depends on the total number of fixed seats. Only venues with less than 300 seats are exempt from the dispersal requirement.

The most important thing to remember about wheelchair accessible seating in a venue is that the line of sight to the field, floor or performance area must be unobstructed, meaning that there is a clear sight line over standing patrons in front of or below the seated spectator.

For each wheelchair accessible seat location, there must be space and movable seat(s) available for companions/family member(s).

This is the just the surface of the requirements for public accommodations as the requirements are detailed and varied depending on the venue. If you would like to read the regulations, visit www.ada.gov. The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design can be downloaded from the website. The relevant section(s) can be found in Chapter 2: Scoping Requirements/221 Assembly Areas.

Joan W. Stein, president, Stein Consulting LLC, is a nationally recognized ADA consultant, having worked with a wide variety of businesses and organizations across the United States since 1990. She can be reached at jwstein0731@gmail.com.

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