ADA Guide for Small Businesses: Your Comprehensive Path to Compliance

By Mariah Collins, SHRM-CP on Jan 26, 2024
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The Americans with Disabilities Act imposes unique legal requirements on businesses in all fifty states. As your business grows, it’s important to stay up to date with these requirements and make sure that you’re meeting all applicable ADA compliance guidelines. 

In this article, I’ll introduce you to the major ADA guidelines that business owners and managers need to keep in mind, regardless of company size or location. I hope you’ll be able to use this practical guide as a starting point and a tool to kick off your ADA compliance initiatives. For ease of reference, this post is separated into categories: an introduction to the ADA, ADA legal requirements in the employment context, ADA guidelines regarding accessibility, and ADA digital compliance. 

Managing ADA compliance (along with a host of other federal regulations) can be overwhelming for small business owners. At the end of this post, I’ll show you where to turn for help managing these items and more. 

RELATED: Guide to Hiring Employees with Disabilities >>

What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into effect in 1990. At its heart, the ADA is a civil rights law. The Act’s main purpose is to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ensure that these Americans have the same opportunities as any other citizens. 

The ADA prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in many areas, such as education, housing, and transportation. However, the Act is well-known in the business context for setting ADA legal requirements surrounding individuals with disabilities within the framework of employment and accessibility. 

When discussing the ADA, it’s worth noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) significantly expanded the rights of disabled Americans in employment. The ADAAA has been in effect since 2009. Among its chief additions to disability law in the last century include modifications to the definition of “disability” and the expansion of ADA compliance obligations of private employers with 15 or more employees. 

The ADA and Service Animals in the Workplace

Yes, ADA legal requirements still apply to small businesses. However, certain specific ADA legal requirements may not extend to small businesses with fewer than 15 employees. 

The ADA intends to reduce the burden of accessibility on disabled individuals, not to force businesses that cannot afford to make accommodations or modifications for individuals with disabilities to shoulder an unnecessary financial obligation. The Department of Labor states in its guidance material that: 

“Businesses with fewer than 15 employees are not covered by the employment provisions of the ADA. Moreover, a covered employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation that would cause an "undue hardship." Undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an organization's size, financial resources and the nature and structure of its operation.” 

Note that the Department of Labor specifies that employers of fewer than 15 workers are excused only from ADA legal requirements related specifically to employment. These businesses are still beholden to physical accessibility ADA compliance standards. You should also take extreme caution when designating a circumstance as posing an “undue hardship” on your business. Before using this reasoning to avoid an ADA compliance requirement, reach out to experienced HR Compliance experts to confirm that you’re on the right track. 

RELATED: The Ultimate ADA Checklist for Small Business Accessibility >>

ADA Guidelines Regarding Employment 

Under the ADA, private employers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. ADA compliance requirements in the employment arena extend to protect both current and prospective employees alike. 

In general, if a job applicant or current employee with a disability is otherwise qualified to fulfill the duties of their role, employers must work with them to help them succeed—via the provision of “reasonable accommodations” that are specific to the employee, the business, and each party’s needs. 

“Reasonable accommodation” is a term of art with legal significance. The United States Department of Labor defines a reasonable accommodation as a “modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process.” 

If an employee or applicant has a disability, employers must explore offering reasonable accommodations so that the employee or applicant can fulfill the duties of the role efficiently and comfortably. “Explore” is an operative word here—employers are obligated to listen to the needs of the disabled employee and to try different accommodations if the first offered modification or adjustment doesn’t work for both parties.  

Employee tardiness due to using the restroom and possible ADA accommodation.

ADA Guidelines Regarding Accessibility

Businesses of all sizes must adhere to ADA compliance requirements surrounding accessibility. An overarching theme in ADA guidelines on accessibility is the removal of barriers for disabled individuals seeking to access your physical location. When it is “readily achievable” to do, the ADA requires businesses to remove barriers to accessibility. 

Whether the removal of a barrier is readily achievable depends on multiple factors, including the cost and nature of the action, the business’ resources, safety, and more. For questions on whether you should remove certain barriers to your physical location, reach out to the experts at Axcet HR Solutions

Common barriers may include: 

  • Lack of handicapped parking spaces 
  • Inadequate access from a street or sidewalk to your building 
  • Inadequate access to bathrooms, water fountains, or pay phones at your location 
  • Improper access to goods and services 

ADA Digital Compliance

The ADA requires businesses open to the public to provide individuals with disabilities with the “full and equal enjoyment” of anything the business has to offer: goods, services, facilities, and privileges. This requirement extends to the accessibility of a business’ website. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, “A website with inaccessible features can limit the ability of people with disabilities to access a public accommodation’s goods, services, and privileges available through that website.” When ensuring that your business’ web content is accessible to individuals with disabilities, consider the following: 

  • Avoid low color contrast on your pages. High contrast is easier for individuals with limited vision and/or color blindness to read. 
  • Don’t use color as the only indicator of information. For example, requiring all “green” fields to be filled may limit accessibility for individuals with red-green color blindness. 
  • Provide captions to videos when feasible. Captions ensure that hearing-disabled individuals can enjoy your content. 
  • Provide keyboard navigation options. Navigation by mouse only limits accessibility for those who cannot use the tool. 

RELATED: ADA Compliance - The Rise of Surf-By Lawsuits >>

Axcet HR Solutions: Your Experienced HR Compliance Partner 

In this post, we’ve touched on some of the basics of ADA Compliance, but there is much more to the ADA that you should be aware of. A certified professional employer organization can help ensure your business is compliant. 

At Axcet HR Solutions, we take a holistic look at your organization, its employees, and your unique needs and circumstances before making tailored recommendations. Our goal is to ease the administrative and financial burden of HR compliance, so you can direct your resources toward growing and scaling your core business. Interested in learning more about Axcet can help? Schedule a consultation today. Axcet HR Solutions HR PEO Services

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