When James Donald maneuvered his wheelchair into San Francisco’s Cafe Royale in 1984, he saw that there were very limited seating options for him and his companion. The bar area was on the entry level and accessible, but most of the tables were high-top to accommodate bar stools. The main dining area had lower tables, but was on a platform about 18 inches off the ground, inaccessible for someone like him. When he pointed this out, a member of the restaurant staff said someone could lift him and his chair up there.
That was not the right answer for Donald, a former deputy attorney general in California who was the U.S. representative to Disabled Peoples International. He sued the restaurant under the Americans with Disabilities Act and eventually won a $250 judgement and attorney’s fees.
The ADA requires that public businesses promptly remove barriers to accessibility when "readily achievable." According to the U.S. Department of Justice, readily achievable means "easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense." The standard for what is "readily achievable" varies from business to business based on size and resources.
Determining whether an accommodation is "readily achievable" depends on several factors, according to the ADA:
- The nature and cost of the action,
- The resources of the site (number of employees, effect on expenses and resources, requirements for safe operation, etc.),
- The geographic and the administrative or fiscal relationship of the site in question to any parent company or entity,
- If applicable, the overall size, financial resources or composition of any parent corporation or entity.
Some examples include installing ramps, rearranging tables and chairs to make more space to maneuver, installing a raised toilet seat, and placing raised lettering or Braille on elevator buttons. The "readily achievable" standard does not require businesses to make modifications that would drastically reduce revenue potential (e.g., a retail outlet removing many shelves, or a restaurant removing many tables). It also doesn’t require modifications that would threaten the historic significance of buildings that have been deemed landmarks by local, state or federal authorities.
There are four main priorities businesses should be mindful of when deciding what accommodations should be made:
- Providing access to your business from public sidewalks, parking areas, and public transportation;
- Providing access to the goods and services your business offers;
- Providing access to public restrooms; and
- Removing barriers to other amenities offered to the public, such as drinking fountains.
The formula for determining how many handicapped parking spots are required is somewhat complex, but a simplified rule of thumb is that one van-accessible spot is required for lots with 1-200 total parking spots, with an additional standard handicapped spot for every multiple of 25 in between.
If a business has more than one entrance, only one must be accessible, as long as there are signs pointing to it at all of the inaccessible entrances. Within the business, all routes leading to public goods and services must be at least three feet wide, and free of obstacles (temporary obstacles for cleaning, maintenance, or repairs may be okay, but must be removed as soon as possible). More guidance can be found in the ADA Standards for Accessible Design and on the U.S. Access Board website.
It’s important to note that under the law "readily achievable" accommodations should be made as soon as possible, unlike major structural changes (e.g., installing an elevator), which can wait until a business builds a new location or renovates an existing building. That means that while the ADA may not have required Cafe Royale’s owners to immediately revamp their floor plan to accommodate James Donald and others like him, it required them to make another accommodation, like having a portable ramp available to allow wheelchair users to surmount the 18-inch barrier to the dining area.
What about the staff’s offer to have someone lift Donald into the dining area? That came into play during Donald’s court case, when he testified that he declined the offer because of the danger of being dropped. The law was on his side: any "readily achievable" accommodation must meet ADA safety guidelines. For example, ramps, whether permanent or portable, must be properly secured and have railings or raised edges and a firm, non-slip surface.