Injured and wounded veterans aren’t used to worrying about public accommodations for the disabled… until they themselves become disabled. If you or a loved one is working through disability, though, simply being able to go out with friends to a restaurant, use a park, a public restroom or patronize a neighborhood business can be a real issue.
What can you expect of local businesses and other public venues? Do you have rights under the law? What are the exceptions?
First of all, become familiar with the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, more commonly referred to as the ADA, and its provisions regarding public accommodations.
What are public accommodations? According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, A public accommodation is a private entity that owns, operates, leases, or leases to, a place of public accommodation. Places of public accommodation include a wide range of entities, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, private schools, and day care centers. Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt from the ADA’s title III requirements for public accommodations.
More specifically, a place of public accommodation is a facility whose operations affect commerce and falls into at least one of these categories:
- Places of lodging (inns, hotels, or motels);
- Places that serve food or drink (restaurants and bars);
- Places of exhibition or entertainment (theaters, concert venues, stadiums, arenas);
- Places of public gathering (auditoriums, convention centers, lecture halls);
- Sales or rental establishments (stores, shopping centers);
- Service establishments (laundromats, banks, beauty shops, travel services, repair services, funeral homes, gas stations, professional offices, pharmacies, insurance offices, hospitals);
- Public transportation terminals, depots or stations;
- Places of public display or collection (museums, libraries, galleries);
- Places of recreation (parks, zoos, amusement parks, gyms, pools);
- Places of education (nursery schools, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate schools, trade or technical schools);
- Social service center establishments (day care centers, senior citizen centers, homeless shelters, food banks, adoption agencies); or
- Places of exercise or recreation (gyms, health spas, bowling alleys, golf courses).
By and large, businesses and other public accommodations cannot discriminate against or screen out those with disabilities, except for the purposes of safety, or where including the disabled would fundamentally change the services or experiences offered. Operators of these venues cannot exclude the disabled for any other reason, whether by overt policy or by imposing restrictions that are, in practice, discriminatory. For example, a business cannot require a customer to present a drivers’ license and exclude all other forms of identification, because this would effectively discriminate against the blind. Obviously, though, if you’re going to want to drive a rental car, you’re going to have to present a drivers’ license.
Businesses and other public venues must make any accommodations that are “reasonable,” which the federal government defines as accommodations that can be made “without much effort or expense.” For example, a business may have to arrange tables and shelves to make it wheelchair accessible, or install a short ramp if it has a few steps. Generally, though, small businesses are not required to go through extensive retrofits or massive remodeling to make themselves wheelchair accessible or otherwise accommodate the disabled.
Furthermore, employers with fifteen employees or more cannot discriminate against applicants with disabilities, if the applicant is able to do the job with reasonable accommodation. We’ll visit the employment law aspects of the ADA in an upcoming article. I’m mentioning this to draw a distinction between the employment law provisions of the ADA and the public accommodation provisions. Under the federal law, the employment provisions apply to employers with over fifteen employees. But there is no such maximum for the applications of the public accommodations provisions. While the federal government recognizes that very small businesses do not have the same resources available to make accommodations that larger businesses and governments do, the general principles of the public accommodation provisions apply to venues of all sizes.
Generally, federal law requires public venue operators to allow service animals – defined as trained animals that perform a specific service for the disabled individual. Therapy animals do not count under this provision – though state laws may vary. Venues generally cannot charge extra nor charge a ‘pet deposit,’ because these animals are not pets under the law.
What to do if you feel you have been unlawfully discriminated against
If you believe you have been unlawfully discriminated against in violation of the ADA, and you cannot achieve satisfaction by working with the business or other venue operator directly, you can report them to the Disability Rights Section, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice.