Establishing and running a small business can be stressful, especially when business owners need to keep track of so many government laws and regulations. One statute all businesses should know about is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law, which went into effect in 1992, has requirements for businesses of all sizes, to make sure they don’t discriminate against people with disabilities, either when serving customers or when dealing with employees.

The Department of Justice states, "Businesses that serve the public must modify policies and practices that discriminate against people with disabilities; comply with accessible design standards when constructing or altering facilities; remove barriers in existing facilities where readily achievable; and provide auxiliary aids and services when needed to ensure effective communication with people who have hearing, vision, or speech impairments. All businesses, even those that do not serve the public, must comply with accessible design standards when constructing or altering facilities."1

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four adults in the U.S. has a disability.2 The most common is a mobility limitation (difficulty walking or climbing stairs), which was reported by one in seven adults. This was followed by thinking/memory disabilities, independent living disabilities, and self-care disabilities.

When it comes to the ADA, small businesses that don't meet requirements are subject to fines, so it's important to understand the law. Small businesses should understand Title I and Title III of the law in particular, which cover regulations related to employment and public accommodations respectively. Common efforts to remain compliant include written policies, the allowance of leave for employees with disabilities as needed, and accessibility modifications.

Businesses are expected to make "reasonable modifications" to policies to accommodate people with disabilities. Examples given by the Justice Department include a daycare center with two scheduled snack times making a modification to allow a child with diabetes to bring food for an extra snack, and a clothing store modifying a policy permitting only one person at a time in a dressing room to accommodate a second person when a disability is involved, as the person may need help from their companion.

One thing to note is that not all businesses are expected to live up to the same level of compliance, as different factors are taken into consideration, such as business model, employee profile, and resources. "Anything that would result in a fundamental alteration – a change in the essential nature of your business – is not required," it says. "For example, a clothing store is not required to provide dressing assistance for a customer with a disability if this is not a service provided to other customers." The department does make note of exceptions to "no pets" policies for service animals.

Brick-and-mortar businesses have plenty of areas that are frequently overlooked, including how doors operate (including if they require too much pressure to open), the right amount of signage, restroom accessibility features, etc. However, the law doesn't only apply to brick and mortar businesses, and that's something a lot of companies in the digital age must consider, since it's a commonly overlooked area of compliance. Website accessibility has been the subject of a large number of lawsuits in recent years. UC Berkeley has some good information about how to improve accessibility for your website.3

The Department of Justice offers small businesses a primer on ADA compliance that lays out the basics of compliance and includes details about what is expected, from structural modifications for accessibility, parking, facility assessments, etc.4

The ADA is nothing new, but many businesses still grapple with compliance. Things aren't as simple as they might seem at first glance. It’s smart to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the law and what the Justice Department may expect of you and your company.