July 2006 was the 16th anniversary of the signing of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), which continues to morph in scope and power into both public and private sectors. Each new month beginning July 26, 1990, has given us new insight as lawsuits fleshed out the regulations and understanding of ADA. Learning a new lexicon containing “Fundamental Alteration,” “Direct Threat” and “Readily Achievable” was just the beginning for designers and operators, which quickly spread into the realm of Management Advisory Services for our industry.

Rumors to the contrary dismissed, the Federal Government has no formal inspection   process for ADA. Despite this, the owners and/or operators of foodservice facilities remain responsible for complying with the day-to-day communication and serving of all customers, especially those who have disabilities. Failure to accomplish this will have owners, operators, designers, consultants, contractors and advisers answering for the oversight in court.

The Justice Department spent 2004 compiling revised regulations and listening to arguments before issuing the new updated 2005 ADA guidelines. These revised ADA and ABA (Architectural Barriers Act) guidelines are now available online.

The following provides a quick look into this complex issue that affects us all.

Design and Construction When passed and signed into law, ADA did not require owners and operators to retrofit existing buildings immediately for accessibility. This mistakenly led some to believe their businesses were grandfathered. But we cannot stress enough that ADA is a Civil Rights Act and no business is exempt from compliance.

ADA relies on owner- and operator-planned alterations and barrier removal to improve accessibility in older buildings over a specific time period. As businesses alter their existing facilities in any way, especially as it affects “usability,” the area or elements being altered must comply with ADA guidelines. Even without alterations, businesses are not free of accessibility requirements; a plan to remove any and all barriers must be prepared, then changes may be accomplished over several years.

ADA guidelines that discuss alterations describe many situations where less stringent provisions are allowed than would be the case for new construction. In addition, ADA recognizes that sometimes existing structural conditions cannot be modified without removing or altering a load-bearing member, an essential part of the structure. Sometimes, an existing physical or site constraint will prohibit modification or addition of accessible features that fully comply with ADA Standards. In such cases, a business must comply with the provisions of ADA Standards to the “maximum extent feasible.

New Buildings ADA requires that all new public accommodations and commercial facilities comply with design standards, called the “ADA Standards for Accessible Design” (ADA Standards). These Standards make buildings and facilities usable by people who are blind, deaf, have limited dexterity or grasping ability, as well as people who have mobility impairments.

Many local codes contain their own accessibility provisions; these are separate from ADA Standards. To make sure that construction complies with ADA as well as the local building code, operators and owners must follow both sets of requirements. Where differences arise, they should follow the requirements that will result in greater accessibility.

New Concerns In the past, businesses, designers and consultants considered ADA as a bricks-and-mortar issue more than a service issue. While door widths, aisles, and heights of tray slides are important, today service aspects attract more attention. Every business has their special way of doing things, be it formal or informal policies, practices, procedures or routines that help a business operate as smoothly as possible. Sometimes, these normal ways of doing things make it difficult or impossible for persons with disabilities to purchase goods and services.

ADA requires businesses to make “reasonable modifications” in their usual way of doing things when it is necessary to accommodate customers who have disabilities. Most accommodations involve making minor adjustments in procedures or providing some extra assistance.

ADA guidelines do not spell out how or what must be done to accomplish “reasonable modifications.” Their idea is not to exclude a customer by being unwilling to make accommodations that are fairly simple.

Primary Function Area By definition, ADA considers a primary function area one where people carry out the major activities for which a facility is used. Dining areas within a restaurant, meeting rooms in a conference center, customer service areas of a retail shop, and other public areas are primary function areas. Hallways and restrooms usually are not classified as primary function areas; neither are mechanical rooms, janitorial closets, employee lounges nor supply storage rooms.

When making alterations, the affected areas and elements must then comply with ADA Standards. In addition, because the area is a primary function area, any path of travel to and amenities serving the altered area must be made accessible even if that was not the case previously. In the event the costs for these changes exceed more than 20 percent of the overall alteration, then the area does not need to be ADA-compliant.

When making changes, businesses should give first priority to measures that enable people with disabilities to get in the door, followed by measures that enable them to get to the primary function areas. The next priority is access to the restroom facilities provided for customers. Lastly, businesses should eliminate any other barriers that remain.

ADA has limits. Businesses are not expected to reduce the amount of furniture or displays to the extent that it would result in a “significant loss” of selling or serving space.

In addition, businesses are not required to change policies and procedures in any way that would cause a “fundamental alteration” in the nature of their goods or services that would undermine safe operation of the business or would cause a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others. A fundamental alteration is a change so significant that it affects the essential nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations offered.

For example, restaurants do not have to prepare special dishes for customers who have disabilities. Doing so is a fundamental alteration in the nature of the restaurant’s service. If an operator can easily omit a sauce or ingredient in a menu item, a customer may make such a request and this would not be considered a fundamental alteration so it should be accommodated.

An employee may need to help an older customer using a walker or someone with limited use of hands or arms, by carrying bulky items, filling their plates from a buffet or carrying the food items to their table, even if the restaurant is self-service. Likewise, a restaurant may need to assist a customer who is unable to use both hands to cut their food, by cutting the food into bite-sized pieces.

If a restaurant owner adds an outdoor seating area, like the indoor section, it, too, is covered by ADA and must be accessible.

In contrast, let’s say a restaurant has a balcony with less than 20 percent of the seats within the dining area on the upper level. Will the restaurateur be required to add a means to allow access to this balcony for handicapped customers? ADA Standards and the regulations for business will allow an exemption on the access since it is less than 20 percent if the menu and the décor are the same in both areas.

Why the difference between these last two examples? The atmosphere is different in the first instance and not providing access would deprive the disabled from enjoying the alternate ambience even if the same menu is available.

Owner and Operator Arguments “I don’t have any disabled customers, so I don’t need to make any changes” is a common excuse not to make any changes to an operation. No business serving the public is exempt from ADA. Each business is required to make access to their primary function area to the maximum extent feasible and treat all customers alike. A viable written plan is needed to accomplish this.

It is the consultant’s responsibility to advise owners and operators that they are responsible as well as their landlord for assuring the removal of barriers during construction in new or existing buildings.

Many owners and operators say they “can’t afford” to provide disability accessibility. They are usually referring to the cost of construction and modifying their building. ADA expects businesses, regardless of size, to assess the barriers that disabled persons meet and have a written plan with a timetable for removal. These plans, as mentioned previously, do not all need to be implemented immediately, but they must be scheduled.

Barriers can be more than the width of an aisle. How are you planning to serve the visually handicapped? Using a server to read the menu is much easier and less expensive than having Braille menus available, especially with frequently changed menus. Additionally, it should be noted that staff are not expected to abandon their duties to provide assistance to a person with a disability, when doing so would jeopardize the safe operation of a business.

Lately, many operators feel as if “compliance never ends,” especially when a foodservice operation begins to offer packaged items. How do you limit the cost of making packaged items compliant with ADA and the different disabilities?

Operators only tend to see the costly aspect of the compliance. ADA doesn’t tell you how to accomplish any of the tasks in opening your business to the disabled. Each business may adopt a means, costly or inexpensively, to assist the disabled in using or buying goods. A simple pad of paper and pencil will communicate with the hearing impaired as will a TTY connection or hiring a person capable of signing; all comply with the dictates of ADA.

Training staff in proper handling of disabled persons is very important for all businesses. Even with policy and practice manuals that are proactive towards the disabled, many of the staff within a restaurant are unaware of how they should handle many situations. It is incumbent upon the business owner to train service personnel correctly or again open yourself up for legal action.

Congress has provided two kinds of tax incentives available to businesses to assist in offsetting the costs of complying with ADA. Businesses can take advantage of these incentives each year to make their facilities, goods and services more accessible.

A “Disabled Access Credit” is available to small businesses that have 30 or fewer employees or total revenues of less than $1 million a year. A credit of up to $5,000 each year is available to offset a business’ costs for removing barriers, hiring interpreters or readers needed for effective communication, producing documents in alternate formats such as large print, or other such steps to improve accessibility for customers and employees with disabilities. This provision is found in Section 44 of the IRS tax code. Under Section 190 of the IRS tax code, businesses of any size may take a deduction of up to $15,000 each year for the cost of removing barriers in facilities or vehicles.

Both incentives, credits and deductions, are available for removing barriers in existing operations. The credit is also available for providing effective communication or taking other steps to improve accessibility. Neither of the incentives applies to the costs of a new facility.

Enforcement of ADA ADA gives people with disabilities the right to file lawsuits in Federal court and obtain court orders to stop violations. If you are sued and lose the case, you may have to pay the winning party’s attorney’s fees and court costs. ADA does not permit monetary damages to be assessed against you in lawsuits to reward complainants.

That said, recently the Justice Department has mediated cases that allowed the person bringing the lawsuit awards from $200 to more than $5,000 during the past year.

Where is the information? As an owner or operator of any business, make sure you understand the changing world of ADA and/or work with your channel partners to ensure the changes you make to your operation will be ADA-compliant.