How to Keep Your Organization Legal: Advice from An ADA Advocate

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woman sits at her desk with a laptop, notebook, and coffee ready to do research on legal matters
While I know a lot about the federal laws that provide access to Americans with disabilities, I am not a lawyer. However, I can help you better understand the need for accessibility, accessibility laws, and, hopefully, provide information that can help you identify if you are at risk for a lawsuit or grievance process.

The first thing you need to understand is the difference between laws, policies, and standards. Here is my brief “Schoolhouse Rock” style overview.

  • A law, also referred to as a statute or act, is a bill that has completed the legislative process or constitutional amendment. It is legally binding and enforceable. The President will sign a bill into law, or citizens will vote an article into law during an election year.
  • A policy is created by a government agency to explain methods and principles that achieve an objective. Policies are not laws but can lead to the creation of a bill. There can be punitive actions for the violation of policy in government-regulated areas.
  • A rule or standard is the minimum requirement to meet the law. This is how laws are interpreted and explained. This is done for agency enforcement; and, an example of an agency is the Department of Justice or Homeland Security. Judicial enforcement can occur without a rule or standard. A judge can rule on law and the intention of the law while ignoring the rules and standards.
  • A mandatory policy is like a rule, but it doesn’t need to pertain to a law. Agencies can create policies for oversight and governance.
  • Guidelines and industry standards are looked at as “best practices” but not mandated. A judge can utilize a “best practice” as a standard or definition of compliance when determining the outcome of a legal case. This is occurring with WCAG 2.0 and  508 standards
  • Federal Government (and agencies) must follow procurement law. These are legal specifications when an agency selects a company to purchase goods, services, and information. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is a related part of this law.
  • Procurement recommendation is not a law, but a preferred way of doing business uniformly. These recommendations are internal specifications to help level the playing field for companies bidding on government contracts.

Okay, you made it this far. So now you’re closer to understanding that providing accessible materials and access to goods and services is a requirement per federal accessibility laws, and hopefully have a good grasp on the legal lingo to interpret the next section.

Beyond Wheelchair Ramps, Braille Signs, and Accessible Restrooms

Every business with a physical location probably thinks they are ADA compliant because municipalities require occupancy certificates or the like and it is part of the inspection process. Organizations can be misguided and legal trouble can occur when companies have a false sense of ADA compliance; thinking they’re following accessibility laws.

Did you know that providing equal access goes above permitting entry to a location?  Accessibility laws also require businesses to remove communication barriers.

Imagine being permitted into a business, but you are forced to wear a blindfold. Could you read warning signs? Would you be able to review a policy? Sign a car loan? Review a medical precaution form? Understand the side effects of medication? Order a meal independently? The answer to these questions is probably, “No.” These are examples of communication barriers.

Communication barriers prevent equal access for people with disabilities. Per federal law, compliance requires removal of all barriers. Providing an alternative to printed documents removes communication barriers. The most common options to standard printed documents are braille, audio, large print, and accessible PDFs.

Now, you wouldn’t give a person who is completely blind a large print format. And you wouldn’t give someone who cannot read braille a braille format. So, removing communication barriers is a customized approach based on the individual’s abilities and needs.

judge banging gavel in the court room enforcing accessibility laws

What Laws Require Accessibility?  

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, is the catch-all for accessibility. It covers employment, state and local government requirements, public transportation, and public accommodations. It is essential to note Federal Agencies are not required to follow the ADA.  Another set of Laws cover federal agencies; we will get to those next.

  •    Title I –Employment
  •    Title II- State and Local Government Activities – NOT FEDERAL
  •    Title II- Public Transportation –  Access to transportation
  •    Title III – Public Accommodations (non-government) Privately owned, Corporate owned, Not-for-profit: grants the public access – included private transportation for public use.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mirrors the ADA; only it pertains to Federal Agencies, specific agencies like the US Postal Service, and those doing business with the federal government or using federal funding for a program. Since we’re discussing communication barriers, we will focus on Section 504 and Section 508 of this Act.

Section 504 requires equal access to Federal goods, services, information, or communication. This section includes entities that receive Federal Funds. Each Federal Agency has its own 504 regulations, policies, standards and oversight.

Section 508 is similar, but deals with Information Communication and Technology (ICT). Section 508 primarily follows Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is an advisory group for accessibility standards.

There are other laws, but these two Acts are the catchall; requiring accessibility and nondiscriminatory practices as a part of civil rights.

What constitutes someone having a disability?

Many privacy laws prevent businesses from requiring documentation of a disability, but in some instances like employment, healthcare, education, and the same relevance of a need can be established. To know the exact requirements and statutes it is best to consult with a legal professional as discrimination and privacy laws are out of my scope of practice.

It is important to note the disabilities that could require the removal of communication barriers and accessibility are defined as the following:

  •    Age-related impairments- Low vision, auditory impairments, fine motor deficits, and cognition
  •     Health conditions- Temporary and Permanent,
  •    Changing abilities- Autoimmune issues
  •    Situational limitations- Bright and Loud Areas
  •    Auditory Disabilities- Hearing loss, Decibel
  •   Cognitive/Neurological Impairments- Learning disabled, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, TBI, Stroke…
  •    Speech-Language Impairments, Mute, Impediment
  •    Physical-  Loss of limb, appendage, sensory organ…
  •    Visual- Blind, Colorblind, Low Vision, and Impaired Vision

Four member business team doing a fist-bump.

Be a Champion and Follow Accessibility Laws

The law requires providing accessibility for people with disabilities, but it is also the right thing to do. When communication barriers have removed a person with a disability can navigate the world more independently.

It’s hard to imagine having a visual or hearing impairment or a neurological disability and many fears and questions arise regarding independence. Quite frankly many people struggle with understanding how people with a disability function independently. So, frequently disability rights are not recognized or taken seriously. The truth is providing accessible documents and materials it opens a new world to a person with a disability because it gives them independence.

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This post was written by Christine Sket

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