September 22, 2014 |

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance

By Heidi Lynn Russell

wheelchair ramp at enteranceMinding the complexity of the Americans with Disabilities Act may make your head spin with worry. Face it –– this law creates frustration for many, not only because of the business cost it incurs, but also because of fear that an unhappy customer will sue you for an overlooked incursion.

But take heart, because the ADA can be boiled down into a simple rule of thumb: “Be cognizant, caring and aware. That’s all you have to be, and that’s ADA-compliant,” says James Sinclair, who consults restaurant owners on opening and growing businesses, as well as handling “distressed” operations.

As president of OnSite Consulting of Los Angeles, Sinclair also advises on ADA compliance. “Think of it in the human sense,” he says. “All you’re doing is trying to ensure that anyone who walks into your restaurant can enjoy the experience. It’s about care — being a caring owner and recognizing that’s the law.”

Small restaurant owners in particular may feel ADA compliance is financially onerous. Yes, this is a required aspect of doing business. But, it can be seen positively: It’s an opportunity to show the community you’re a friendly establishment, worthy of their patronage, Sinclair and other experts say. Plan for ADA accommodations to work for your space, while also making the front of the house an accessible, friendly place.

In July 2010, President Obama announced the most significant changes to the ADA since it became law in 1991, says Kevin Hughes, who has researched the ADA changes extensively. He is vice president for Project and Development Services at Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in real estate services and investment management.

Under the revised law that took affect March 15, 2012, there are strong penalties for offenders: fines up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for the second. “In some cases, organizations have paid much larger additional amounts to compensate individuals involved in lawsuits,” he says. “And following litigation, courts often dictate remediation schedules, removing control from the organization and often resulting in greater overall expense.”

One example is NPC International, which is the largest franchisee of Pizza Hut restaurants. The company must make accessible improvements to dining and counter service areas, restrooms, entrances and parking areas at about 800 locations, Hughes says.

“Compliance is also good business,” Hughes says. “Many associations publish guides and rating systems that evaluate businesses such as hotels and retailers according to accessibility for disabled persons.”

A Small Business Administration loan can help pay for required changes, Sinclair says. “A dollar saved today is a thousand-dollar cost tomorrow. If you say, ‘I don’t have the $15,000 to buy this,’ you can lease it or finance it. It’s like saying, ‘I can’t afford a stove.’Then you probably shouldn’t open the business,” he says.

Jeff Farney owns Complete Access Solutions LLC of Wichita, Kansas, a firm that consults full-time on ADA compliance. Many small businesses don’t realize there are also tax incentives for “barrier removal.”

“Some of (the tax write-off ) is significant,” Farney says. “what’s available will take, in most cases, 80 to 90 percent of the cost away of modifications, the priority stuff. with new construction, ADA compliance accounts for less than two percent of the total cost of a project, on average.
Here are the usual “red flags” for inspectors and complainants, Farney says:

  • A lack of compliant accessible parking spaces. This includes “van accessible” spaces, access aisles and vertical signage. Numbers of accessible spaces required is based on total parking spaces available. Additionally, accessible spaces should be on the shortest route to the accessible entrance and should be level (slopes of two percent or less) in all directions.
  • Accessible route to the accessible entrance from parking spaces. Accessible routes are at least 36-inches wide, have slopes no greater than five percent and are free from changes in level (thresholds) greater than a ½-inch beveled.
  • Entrance doors with opening hardware that can be opened with a closed fist. “Panel” style hardware is NOT compliant. entrance doors should have a clear opening at least 32 inches wide and thresholds should be no higher than a ½-inch beveled.

At least five percent of seating areas should meet ADA requirements. Tops of tables should be between 28 inches and 34 inches. Knee clearance should be at least 27 inches high, 30 inches wide and a total knee/toe clearance depth of 19 inches, Farney says.

“I commonly see condiments and self serve soda dispensers placed too high –– they shouldn’t be higher than 48 inches. I also see register counters too high –– they shouldn’t be higher than 34 inches,” Farney says.

When in doubt, find an ADA consultant, and check their references, Farney says. If you need technical advice, contact the US Department of Justice at This site includes information about changes to the ADA law.

Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writ­ing about the issues that affect small business owners.