The Spirit of the ADA: Welcoming is INTENTIONAL
For business owners, having an understanding of what the ADA says is critical to being in compliance with the law. The law was passed in order to break down barriers and “level the playing field” to allow equal access to a business’s facilities, programs and services for people with disabilities. Yet the spirit of the ADA is about so much more than compliance, and if you are merely complying with the ADA to check off a box or meet a legal requirement, you’re missing the true purpose—or “spirit”—of the ADA.
Creating Inclusive Public Spaces
Inclusiveness takes PLANNING
Inclusiveness isn’t something that just necessarily “happens” in a business when we modify doorways, widen aisles, or create large-print versions of print materials for clients and customers. Making these physical and programmatic modifications to buildings and services are a part of an overall plan to create a disability-friendly environment, but the establishment of truly inclusive public spaces involves time, planning, and a comprehensive assessment of your business that includes, among other factors, the image your company projects to the community, the accessibility of your buildings, goods and services to all potential customers, staff training on your business plan, and an ongoing to commitment to reviewing and revising the plan’s effectiveness.
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 at the business. Diversity initiatives are more likely to succeed when there is a genuine, top-level commitment to making organizational change. This “sets the tone” for staff and within the organization, who receive the message that disability inclusiveness is important to the company and within the workplace. Not only do organizational leaders have the position power by which to move the cause forward, but their buy-in sends a vital message to staff that this topic is important to the organization.
Inclusiveness takes ACTION
A primary reason that the support of an organization’s leadership is so important is because they have the ability to make change happen! Whether it’s identifying 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 one’s organization.
Inclusiveness takes ONGOING EFFORT
Organizations, just like their employees and customers within and surrounding them, aren’t static entities: Needs change, priorities change, 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 with it. Do you know that your efforts are effective? How does your organization measure success? It’s important to have an ongoing process in place that reviews, modifies and sustains the plan post-implementation.
Creating Equal Access: Building a Physically Welcoming Environment
Getting in the door
Creating inclusive public spaces starts the moment a customer or client enters your door. Both literally and figuratively, ensuring that customers are able to gain entrance to your building “opens doors” to them, to any friends and family who may accompany them, and to increased business for your company. A physically 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. A physically accessible main entrance to your facility is a way of messaging to the public that all are welcome at your place of business. Moreover, adhering to the concepts of universal design, customers with physical disabilities are not the only ones who may utilize and benefit from an accessible entrance. Do parents pushing small children in strollers patronize your business? What about older people who may use a cane or have difficulty walking or climbing stairs? Or delivery people carrying heavy packages? An accessible entrance benefits 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 accessible parking, 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. Are the sidewalks clear of obstructions? Do curbs on the route have curb cuts? Are an adequate number of accessible parking spaces available? Are the accessible parking spaces closest to the accessible entrance? As you can see, welcoming your customers begins well before they reach your front door!
Getting to the action
At its heart, 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 cut off from accessing goods and services offered or participating in an event or program that is available to the general public, getting in the door is of little value. When considering physical accessibility, the layout of the building should allow people with disabilities to obtain goods and services and to participate in activities without assistance. The ADA speaks of public accommodations being required to remove barriers only when it is “readily achievable”, which means that barrier removal is easy to accomplish without much difficulty or expense.
Creating a welcoming space and environment for customers with disabilities goes beyond an accessible door or entrance. 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 of its customers.
Getting to Go: Accessible Restrooms
An important aspect of any business’s accessibility plan is the availability of its restrooms for customers. Once the customer is able to gain entry through an accessible entrance and then 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 use by customers or clients. It is difficult for a customer to go out to a restaurant or go to a movie if they know they are unable to access 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 for customers 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 baby changing facilities, and large/heavy people, just to name a few. For example, the increased presence of “family restrooms” not only offers access for people with disabilities, but also offers space, privacy, comfort, and convenience for a variety of customers. It sends the message to the community that all are welcome here.
Getting to Total Physical Accessibility
Once a business has achieved the goal of creating 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 conducting a self-evaluation of a business’s buildings and facilities, the business should look at what barriers remain inaccessible 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 families with children. What about public telephones? And do fire alarm systems have both flashing lights and audible signals to accommodate patrons with vision or hearing loss? What about the automated teller machines (ATM) onsite? Or clothing store fitting rooms? Remember that many people may not identify as having disabilities, but nonetheless still may have traits that limit their ability to access all that a business has to offer. Not only could someone have an obvious disability such as using a wheelchair or a visual or hearing disability, but they could also be short, tall, unable to read, or have an inability 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 customers and clients.
Providing Equal Opportunity for Involvement
Equal Opportunity to 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; to provide communication aids and services; and to remove physical barriers to access when it is readily achievable to do so.
Equal Opportunity to Participate and Benefit
Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA prohibits discriminatory denial of services or benefits to individuals with disabilities. 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 by a place of public accommodation. 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 be afforded the chance, the opportunity, to get there. The ADA is not about special treatment, but rather it speaks of 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 must wait in line just like everyone else. Similarly, this same patron may not be able to perform all of the exercises at 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. In addition, customers with disabilities may bring along their own families and friends to patronize the business.
Equal Opportunity for Integration
A primary goal of the ADA is the equal participation of individuals with disabilities in everyday American society. Individuals with disabilities must be integrated “to the maximum extent appropriate”. An important way to ensure that customers and clients with disabilities feel welcome in their communities is to allow them access to the same programs and services as everyone else. Although there are circumstances where separate programs are allowed under the ADA; for example, a health club can have separate swim classes with children with disabilities, but it cannot deny them access to the regular program. One may derive a different benefit from the class, but should still have the opportunity to be included and participate.
Beyond what the law says, the ADA ultimately is about inclusion, integration, and participation. A business that creates an open, inclusive, welcoming environment for its customers with disabilities says a lot about its image, or “brand”, to the world around it.
Meeting Needs through Flexibility
Reasonable Modification to Programs and Policies
Moving toward developing a more inclusive environment sometimes involves more than making changes to physical spaces to insure they are accessible. Since often policies are based upon the assumption that people are able-bodied (able-ism), company policy inadvertently may discriminate against customers and clients with disabilities. For example, a retail store has a policy of not taking special orders for out-of-stock merchandise unless the customer appears personally to sign the order. Under the ADA, the store would be required to reasonably modify its procedures to allow the taking of special orders by phone from persons with disabilities who cannot visit the store. This reasonable modification not only follows the law, but it also is good for business since it demonstrates to the buying public an attitude of flexibility in customer service. A business never is 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. A willingness to make reasonable modifications to the way things customarily are done is not only the law, but it can be good for business.
Insuring Effective Communication
Communication with customers and clients is an important part of any business operation. It insures that the patron receives the good or service they need, promotes goodwill, and fosters a positive public image. People hold a variety of communication styles, and the effective business owner or manager provides service that meets a diversity of customer needs. For people with disabilities, the ADA states that in order to provide equal access the 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 makes inquiries about the availability of a product. These are examples of a business providing effective communication under the ADA, but perhaps most importantly, these are examples of a business offering good customer service. Crafting a welcoming, inclusive environment is about finding a way to meet customer 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/receives the benefit of 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. Service animals include 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, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to environmental auditory cues such as alarms, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or retrieving dropped items. For more information on service animal requirements, please click here.
Enhancing Inclusion through Respect
Creating a welcoming environment that is accessible to everyone in one’s community is not just promoting goodwill; it’s 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.