Ignoring the Disabled Can Disable Your Business

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in July 1990, is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation ever passed in prohibiting discrimination against and providing access to millions of disabled Americans. By assisting the disabled in becoming more active participants in the everyday world, ADA, in turn, also impacts Americans without disabilities. Hence, all Americans, especially business owners, should be aware of the provisions of this law.

ADA addresses the needs of both the developmentally and physically disabled. The law defines a disabled person as either one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, who has a record of such impairment, or who is regarded as having such an impairment. Disabilities can include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancer-caused breast surgery, mental depression, and recovery from alcoholism, depending on their severity.

The ADA's sections regarding discrimination and accessibility contain the essence of the law that individuals and businesses should know.

While ADA prohibits job discrimination because of a disability, it does not guarantee a disabled person a job. If the applicant is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, the employer cannot refuse to hire him or her because of the disability. Reasonable accommodations must also be made by the employer to allow an individual to work. These accommodations can include: job restructuring, part-time work, modified work schedules, acquisition or modification of equipment and implementation of training programs.

Because some accommodations can be costly and time-consuming, employers can claim that a particular ADA accommodation creates an "undue hardship." Several factors determine such a hardship, including the size of the business, the nature of its operations, the size of the budget, the number of employees (ADA does not apply to private businesses with under 15 employees) and the nature and cost of the accommodation itself.

ADA's sections regarding accessibility for the disabled are even more stringent than those regarding discrimination. Their purpose is to provide disabled persons with access to retail, service, entertainment, and professional businesses that cater to the public.

Under the law, retail and service businesses must provide auxiliary aid to disabled customers and clients to prevent their denial of service, segregation or treatment different from the general public. Some examples of auxiliary aid include: interpreters to transmit vocal or signed messages to the hearing impaired, readers or braille alternatives to convey visual material to the visually impaired and telephone amplifiers and closed-captioned televisions in hotels. Businesses must also remove from facilities built after January 1993 any physical barriers to the disabled whose removal does not cause great difficulty or expense for the business. Examples include ramping steps, installing grab bars and lowering phones.

While accessibility may sound like an expensive regulation for business, the ADA's undue hardship clause applies in this area as well.

Disabled Mississippians who believe their ADA rights have been violated either by discrimination or prohibitive access have several options. They can lodge a complaint with the business, file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or file suit against the business to force it to make reasonable accommodations. Business owners with ADA compliance questions can also contact the U.S. Justice Department for information.