In 2014 alone, American retail stores were hit with more than 5,000 lawsuits due to failures to meet ADA requirements properly. These lawsuits cost businesses more than $100 million.
For many retail store owners, these lawsuits appear unexpectedly. Currently, the ADA does not require people to give businesses prior notice of alleged ADA violation before filing a suit. These lawsuits are often unexpected, and almost always unwelcome.
Add that to the fact nearly 19% of Americans have some disability - that’s over 50 million potential customers - and your business could lose thousands of dollars every year by not being ADA compliant.
To help ensure your business is ADA compliant, and not losing money because of problems with easily remediable solutions, we put together this retail ADA compliance primer.
What is the ADA?
The American with Disabilities Act of 1990 was enacted to guarantee that people with disabilities aren’t excluded from participating in everyday activities: eating out at a restaurant, going to a movie, or shopping at a grocery store.
There are two sections of the ADA that you should be paying closest attention to when starting a retail business: Title I and Title III.
Title I of ADA covers employment.
It says that any employer engaged in an industry “affecting commerce” that employs 15 or more full-time employees each working day for at least 20 or more weeks of the calendar year cannot discriminate against people with disabilities when they’re hiring new employees.
If your business has less than 14 full-time employees or is operational less than 20 weeks a year, you do not necessarily have to comply with Title I of the Act.
Consult the ADA’s website to see if this applies to you.
Title III states that any business that provides goods to the public - services or commercial goods - cannot discriminate against customers based on a disability. That means your business needs to be accessible to persons with disabilities and you cannot turn-aways a customer based on a disability.
This applies to 12 different types of establishments:
- Shopping Malls
- Stores & Shops
- Theaters & Hotels
- Restaurants & Bars
- Service Establishments
- Doctors and Dentists Offices
- Private Museums and Schools
Nearly all businesses that serve the public are included of this list and all need to comply with Title III, regardless of the business’ size or the age of the building it’s housed in.
Before we get into the areas of your store you need to make ADA compliance (spoiler: the whole store!), we need to talk about a phrase that’s going to come up quite a bit: readily achievable.
Many ADA guidelines that you must do something only if it is readily achievable.
For something to be easily achievable, it must be “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”
That means that if you can make an aspect of your store ADA compliant, you need to. Choosing not to create accessible spaces just because it’s ‘easier’ won’t be a viable legal defense when you’re facing a civil rights suit from an ADA compliance.
If you aren’t sure if something is ‘readily achievable,’ always consult a lawyer.
ADA Compliant Retail Areas/Zones
The nine areas that receive the highest number of ADA violations are:
- Parking Lots
- Stairways and Ramps
- Doors at Entrances
- Shelves, Aisles, and Maneuvering Spaces
- Checkouts and Service Counters
- Dressing Rooms
- Store Directions and Signs
Here are some solutions you can use to ensure these areas of your store are ADA compliant.
1) Parking Lots
If your retail store owns and operates a parking lot, you must provide accessible parking spaces for individuals with disabilities.
If you’re leasing your store and parking lot, the onus is on both you and your landlord to provide these types of parking spaces. Before you sign a lease, make sure the lease includes information about who will be responsible for setting up accessible parking spaces; you or your landlord.
How to set up disability friendly parking spots
Retail parking spaces have to meet the dimensions specified by ADAAG (ADA Accessibility Guidelines) if it is readily achievable to meet those standards.
ADAAG also specifies a formula for determining the number of accessible spaces you need to provide.
If it isn’t readily achievable for your business to comply with ADAAG standards for the dimensions or number of accessible spaces, you need to provide as many accessible parking spaces as is possible.
Use this chart to determine how many spaces your business needs.
Business owners often don’t realize that they can sometimes be held responsible for curbside accessibility liabilities.
Curb cuts (AKA ‘curb ramps’) allow people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices to access retail stores easily.
Determine who is responsible for creating an accessible curb cut before you make changes to the curb outside your store.
If the only available parking for your store is a street, the municipality that owns that street is responsible for making sure it’s ADA compliant.
If you own or control the sidewalk outside of your retail store, you have to provide curb ramps if ‘readily achievable.’
If you’re leasing your retail location - including the sidewalk - it should be outlined in your lease who is responsible for providing curb ramps: you or the landlord.
3) Stairways and Ramps
According to changes made by the ADA in 2010, 60% of the entrances to your retail business must be accessible (i.e., it must be possible for people with disabilities to easily get to the entrance and then ‘get through the door’).
That means that if you only have two entrances to your business, both must be accessible.
For most businesses, changing a stairway to a ramp is an easy solution for accessibility.
ADAAG states that you must install a permanent ramp as soon as possible, rather than a portable one. However, portable ramps can be used while you’re building a permanent ramp.
If you’re using a portable ramp, you should install a doorbell or intercom (with an appropriate sign) so individuals can call an employee to bring the ramp to the door.
If you aren’t able to exactly meet the ADAAG’s technical requirements for ramp size and slope, you can deviate slightly from those specifications as long as the ramp is still safe.
When the accessible entrance for your retail business isn’t the front one, provide a sign directing people to the appropriate entrance.
4) Doors and Entrances
According to ADAAG, there must be a minimum of 32 inches of clear space between the face of the door and the opposite stop when a door is opened 90 degrees to allow for customers who use wheelchairs, crutches, and other similar devices to enter your retail store.
Choosing offset hinges can give you several extra inches of clear space.
While not required, automatic or push button doors are often the best option for providing access. Automatic and push-button doors mean your employees won’t have to drop what they’re doing every time the door needs to be open for a disabled customer.
Consult ADAAG for more specific guidelines regarding entrances and doorways.
5) Shelves, Aisles, and Maneuvering Space
Customers with disabilities - customers who use wheelchairs, crutches, or mobility devices, customers with limited maneuverability, and blind or deaf customers - experience retail stores very differently than someone without a disability.
A person with a disability can experience access problems non-disabled persons wouldn’t even necessarily think of. For example, people on crutches have difficulty maneuvering in aisles when displays are placed in the middle of the aisle.
While widening aisles is the ideal solution for customers with limited mobility, some retail stores would lose a significant amount of their selling space to widen their aisles, so this option isn’t always readily achievable.
A different step you can take to improve the functionality of your aisles for disabled persons is to place heavy items on lower shelves and light items on higher shelves. Lowering a heavy object from a high height can be difficult even for able-bodied persons, let alone someone with a disability. If this isn’t possible, make sure your sales clerks are prepared to assist patrons with lowering heavy objects and make sure a small ladder is nearby for your clerks to use.
Moving displays and boxes that could cause access issues in aisles or could trip someone with vision impairment will also help you make sure your store is accessible for all customers.
If your store is so small that you cannot move displays and products out of the aisles, train your clerks to offer customers with disabilities assistance at the front door.
6) Sales and Service Counters
To ensure you have an ADAAG friendly checkout space, you need to meet their measurement requirements.
Accessible counters can be no taller than 36” from the floor to the top of the counter, with few exceptions. If you existing countertops are taller than that and reconstruction would be prohibitively expensive, the ADA allows these counters to stay in place as long as the retail store’s owner build a new, accessible counter near the original counter.
To make space for wheelchairs, people using crutches, and scooters, sales and service counters also have to an obstructed space of no less than 30” by 40” in front of their counter space.
7) Dressing Rooms
When it’s readily achievable, retail stores have to adapt one or more of their dressing rooms to allow customers using wheelchairs or other mobility devices to access them easily.
If this isn’t readily achievable, alternative ‘dressing room’ methods can be employed. For example, allowing for a liberal return policy that gives customers ample time to take items home, try them on, and return them is a viable option.
If your business provides customers a restroom, there are very specific guidelines you must meet to make that restroom accessible if readily achievable.
For example, a toilet must be installed with the top of the seat between 17 - 19” above the floor, located between 16 - 18” from the side wall to the center line or 17 - 19” from the side wall to the centerline if it is considered an ambulatory accessible toilet.
To make sure the restroom in your store is ADA compliant, consult the ADA’s design standards.
9) Store Directions
Large retail establishments must provide store directories, and they need to be made accessible if readily achievable.
Your directory needs to be in large print and include Braille. If possible, providing audio cassettes with store directories on them is another great way to assist blind customers.
Large signs with contrasting colors and block type are also helpful for people with limited vision, including elderly shoppers.
Need help setting up your retail business for crowd control? Read our guide to Retail Crowd Control Basics