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Social Distancing Business Renovations Can Help Wheelchair Access

In the wake of CDC guidelines and changing attitudes about public space, many businesses—restaurants, shops, offices, theaters—are making the best of shutdowns, and perhaps taking advantage of government funding, to reshape their spaces for the “new normal.” 

This reshaping is an opportunity to ensure ADA accessibility.  We may think the last thing businesses need now is one more worry, but during renovations is exactly the moment to meet the ADA’s requirements—and welcome all potential customers. Landlords, not just small business tenants, often share this responsibility.

The Old Normal:  Legal Requirements Often Overlooked

[T]here has been a new and alarming shift taking place in America. It’s 2019, and I find it increasingly difficult to find restaurants and bars that have tables in the main areas that accommodate my wheelchair… Whether they’ve done this consciously or not, they’ve made our lives less equal.

Deborah Davis, The Anti-ADA Bar Crawl

The ADA is clear:  New and renovated spaces generally must provide access to people with disabilities, including people who use wheelchairs.  Except for minor renovations, changes have to include an accessible route to the altered area and to any bathrooms that serve it, “to the maximum extent feasible.”[1] 

Accessibility obligations are rarely satisfied by a sticker advising people with disabilities to call a number for help. 

Even in old spaces with no renovations, businesses must make “readily achievable” changes.  For example, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund explains, “For many businesses, ramping one step or even several steps will be readily achievable.”

Requirements may include:

  • Entrances that are wide enough with no steps;
  • Stair-free access to all public areas of the business, including raised platforms or seating areas and mezzanines;
  • Aisles that are wide enough and kept clear of boxes, displays, etc.;
  • Counters, tables, self-service order tablets–even gas pumps–at an appropriate height for wheelchair users; and
  • Accessible restrooms—as close as the inaccessible ones, e.g. on every floor.

The Same Rights and Opportunities

One reality of the times to come will be more people with disabilities—including COVID survivors with long-term impairments. Even in 2015, the 2.7 million wheelchair users in the United States was a number “expected to grow exponentially.”[2]  The ADA—passed 30 years ago this month “to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else”—is a civil rights law whose time has come.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 12183(a)(2); 28 C.F.R. § 36.403.

[2] Alicia M. Koontz et al., Wheeled Mobility, Biomed Research Int’l (2015), at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4397418/.