Do Small Businesses with Fewer Than 15 Employees Have to Be ADA Compliant?

Published July 30, 2020

One in four U.S. adults – or 61 million Americans – has a disability. Each one of those is a potential employee, contractor, or customer. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination, but some rules only apply to employers with 15 or more employees. Some small businesses may wonder what rules apply to them.

The basics

Title I of the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations (a modification or adjustment to the way things are done at a business) for applicants and employees with disabilities. The rules apply to private employers with 15 or more employees and state and local government employers, but that doesn’t mean small businesses are exempt from the ADA altogether. Some states have different laws that may require smaller employers to provide reasonable accommodations. There’s also Title III of the ADA, which requires accommodations for people with disabilities in businesses that provide goods or services to the public. Businesses that serve the public are required to comply with Title III regardless of how many employees they have. The U.S. Department of Justice sums up Title III of the ADA as such:

Public accommodations must comply with basic nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation and unequal treatment. They also must comply with specific requirements related to architectural standards for new and altered buildings; reasonable modifications to policies, practices and procedures; effective communication with people with hearing, vision or speech disabilities; and other access requirements.

In other words, small businesses with facilities that serve the public, such as restaurants and shops, are still required to make facilities accessible.

Accessibility for small businesses

Accessibility doesn’t have to be time-consuming or costly. The ADA requires what it calls "reasonable accommodations" or "reasonable modifications." In creating an accessible environment under Title III standards, small businesses often find they become compliant with many aspects of Title I as well.

These accommodations for employees and customers usually fall under one of four major categories:

  • Physical changes include installing a ramp or modifying a restroom, modifying the layout of a workspace or business, and providing accessible parking for employees and customers with disabilities.
  • Accessible and assistive technologies ensure that computer software is accessible through technology such as screen reader software, that websites follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and provide for multiple modes for communicating with the businesses, such as TTY/relay service, e-mail, live chat, and text messaging.
  • Accessible communications requires such things as sign language interpreters or live captioning or making writing materials available when a sign language interpreter isn’t an option. It also requires that printed materials be available in Braille, large print, and/or audio format and that fonts used for printed material and websites are compliant with ADA standards.
  • Policy enhancements relate to procedures that accommodate customers with disabilities. This includes allowing a service animal in a business setting, assisting customers with accessing goods and services (such as retrieving items for those with mobility challenges or helping blind people maneuver through a restaurant), and allowing for flexible work schedules so employees with chronic medical conditions can go to medical appointments.

What is not required

The "reasonable" aspect of accommodation is usually interpreted as meaning that anything that would result in a fundamental alteration of a business model is not required, nor are modifications necessary that would create an undue hardship or direct threat. For example, a store is not required to place special orders for or deliver products to a customer with a disability if such a service isn’t provided to other customers.

"Reasonable" also applies to feasibility. A small business with limited resources may not be expected to make as many ADA accommodations as a large corporation, though it’s a good idea to be as compliant as possible. To aid with accommodations, some businesses may qualify for free community services and alternative funding options, such as state programs or tax deductions.

Businesses are also not required to jeopardize the safe operation of the business to aid those with disabilities, and they are not required to hire someone with a disability if the candidate cannot perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodation.

Finally, there is no requirement to provide accommodation outside the scope of the ADA. For example, "comfort," "therapy," or "emotional support” animals do not meet the definition of a service animal under the ADA and businesses are not necessarily required to accommodate them.

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