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Accessibility 101 for Small Business Owners

How easy is it for people with disabilities to patronize your business? Most small business owners would agree that it’s not hard to access their facilities, but many of them are wrong. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers so many aspects of a business and its physical facilities that it can feel nearly impossible to keep them straight, but a business that isn’t complying with the law is risking a lawsuit every time it opens its doors.

That’s why hiring an ADA consultant can actually save you money in the long run. No one likes paying consulting fees, but being slapped with a lawsuit will be even worse – and that’s to say nothing about the potential customers you’re missing out on because they can’t access your building properly. Understand the law, starting with these common mistakes.

1) Assuming You’re Protected by a Grandfather Clause

Grandfather provisions are common in building codes, but ADA isn’t a building code – it’s a civil rights law, and if you serve the public in any way, it applies to you. It also has no cure period for fixing noncompliant areas. That means that if you’re not complying with the law on day one of operating your business, you can be sued for not complying that very day without having a protected period of time to make it better. It’s much easier (and usually cheaper) to do things right the first time. Partner with an architect, consultant or other professional who specializes in ADA compliance to make sure you’re doing everything by the book and put a concrete plan in place to rectify issues that already exist with your building. That way, if someone does complain that you’re not complying, you can at least show that you’re in the process of fixing the issue.

2) Inaccessible Entryways

Street-facing storefronts often have a single step leading up into the business, which doesn’t seem like a problem until a potential customer tries to enter in a wheelchair. Architectural barriers like these are a major inconvenience for disabled shoppers who just want to patronize your business. Luckily, you may be able to fix smaller issues like these without a financially debilitating expense. ADA recognizes that small businesses in particular may have trouble eliminating existing barriers for financial or architectural reasons, so depending on the noncompliant issue, you may be able to deviate slightly from the standards. For example, if you have a single step that you need to replace with a wheelchair ramp but there’s not enough room in front of your store to meet the requirement of 1 inch of rise for every 12 inches of run, you may be allowed to install a slightly steeper ramp. Check with a specialist to make sure your proposed improvement is acceptable before you move forward.

3) Restrooms

There’s nothing more frustrating than needing to use the bathroom and having nowhere to do it. Imagine there’s a stall open, but you can’t use it because you use a mobility device and the only available stall is too small for you and your device to fit. Restrooms are a uniquely touchy subject for a number of reasons when it comes to ADA compliance. To understand why, put yourself in the shoes of a guest with a disability. You may be able to overcome other obstacles by asking for help – for example, asking a sales associate to grab an item on a high shelf for you or requesting assistance getting your wheelchair over a stair or two. But who wants to ask a stranger for help using the restroom? There are quite a few requirements for a space that’s relatively small next to other public-facing areas of a business, so save yourself the headaches and bring in a consultant to review your restroom and make sure it’s fully accessible for guests with disabilities.

These are just three of the biggest concerns for ADA compliance in commercial facilities, and you won’t become an expert overnight. Start by reading ADA Update: A Primer for Small Business at and review any specific areas you’re concerned about in the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. If you need to update your building, look into the federal Architectural/Transportation Tax Deduction or the Small Business Tax Credit to defray the costs of making your business more accessible. Your state may offer additional incentives, so be sure to explore every option to lower the cost of making your building accessible to everyone. Your guests will thank you.

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