Do your policies and procedures work for everyone?

Did you know that 25% of your customers could be disabled?

This sobering fact just came down from the Census Bureau not too long ago and for many of us in the commercial industry, this scares us to death!

This doesn’t mean that one out of every four customers walking into your business has a disability nor does it mean that one in every four employees are disabled.

What it does mean is that millions of American’s are living longer!

In fact, the number of disabled adults in this country that are staying active and working longer regardless of their disability is growing year after year.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great, that just means more knuckle heads running around trying to sue me for the smallest infraction!”  Well, I don’t think so. The number of professional plaintiffs has not kept pace with the rise in numbers of the disabled community. Not by a long shot!

In fact, I am witnessing the opposite! I’m seeing more wide spread acceptance of disabled into private clubs, employment in the private sector and disabled joining group sports teams.

With so many baby boomers turning 65 each month across this country, the sobering reality is this:  those of us in the commercial industry that embrace this reality and take action to service our disabled customers will win big! Those that don’t will lose in the end.

Making it possible for customers with disabilities to purchase your goods and services is an important part of complying with the ADA, and it just makes good sense both in business and in life!

For many business owners, they have trouble figuring out what to do to provide better access for disabled or they choose to focus only on one disabled group such as wheelchair users.

One of the first questions I ask a business owner is “How are your policies and procedures when it comes to disabled customers”? Do you actually have written established policies and if so, do your employees know them and abide by them?

How Important Are My Policies & Procedures?

Every business has a certain way of doing things, whether formally or informally.  Policies, practices, procedures, and routines help the business operate as smoothly as possible. But, sometimes, your normal way of doing things makes it difficult or impossible for customers with disabilities to purchase your goods and services.

This is why the ADA requires businesses to make “reasonable modifications” in their usual ways of doing things when it is necessary to accommodate customers who have disabilities.

Most accommodations involve making minor adjustments in procedures or providing some extra assistance to a customer with a disability. Usually, the customer will let you know if he or she needs some kind of accommodation.

Here are some examples:

  • A clothing store may need to relax their policy of permitting only one person at a time into a dressing room for a person with a disability who is shopping with a companion and needs the companion’s assistance in order to try on clothes.
  • A store that requires a driver’s license as identification for paying by check may need to accept an alternative form of identification from a customer with a disability that disqualifies him or her from getting a license, such as a state-issued picture ID for non-drivers.
  • A store employee may need to help an older customer using a walker or assist someone who has limited use of his hands or arms by carrying a bulky item to the store’s check-out counter.
  • A restaurant may need to assist a customer who is unable to use both hands to cut his or her food by cutting the food into bite-sized pieces.
  • A grocery store employee may need to assist a customer who uses a wheelchair by retrieving merchandise from a high shelf.
  • Staff may need to help a customer who has an intellectual disability in understanding product labels or instructions.

For most of us, these “helps” are just good common sense and the right thing to do.

So Do What Works Best

The ADA does not spell out exactly what you must do in every situation. It lets you decide what is reasonable based on how your business operates and what kind of accommodation the person needs because of his or her disability. The idea is not to exclude a customer by being unwilling to make an accommodation that is fairly simple and easy to make.

There Are Limits

The ADA has limits though. Businesses are not required to change their policies and procedures in any way that would cause a “fundamental alteration” in the nature of their goods or services, would undermine safe operation of the business or would cause a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others.

A “fundamental alteration” is a change that is so significant that it alters the essential nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations offered.

Here are two examples …

  • If a bookstore places special orders for customers, it should do so for all of its customers. A bookstore that does not place special orders for customers is not required to place special orders for customers with disabilities. This would be a “fundamental alteration” in the nature of the bookstore’s services.
  • A restaurant is not required to prepare special dishes for customers who have disabilities. This would be a “fundamental alteration” in the nature of the restaurant’s services. However, if it is easy to omit a sauce or ingredient from a dish that is listed on the menu, a customer can request that item be omitted. This would not be considered a fundamental alteration.

Keep Your Operation Safe

As a rule, people with disabilities may not be excluded from any services or be isolated from other customers unless it is necessary for the safe operation of a business. If legitimate safety requirements make it necessary to exclude or isolate a person with a disability, doing so must be based on actual risks, not on stereotypes or generalizations about people with disabilities.

For example:

A whitewater rafting company may require all participants to take a swim test in order to participate in a rafting expedition. Even if some people with disabilities might not pass the test, the policy is legitimate because of the actual risk of harm to people who would not be able to swim to safety if the raft capsized.

The same whitewater rafting company may not refuse to take customers who have disabilities, based on the incorrect belief that people with disabilities cannot swim.

Likewise, the same company may not require only people with disabilities to take a swim test, based on the assumption that people who don’t have disabilities know how to swim.

Staff is not expected to abandon their duties in order to provide assistance to a person with a disability when doing so would jeopardize the safe operation of a business.

Do Businesses have to provide devices?

Businesses are not required to provide personal devices (such as wheelchairs), individually prescribed devices (such as eyeglasses or hearing aids), or services of a personal nature (such as assistance in eating, toileting, or dressing), to customers with disabilities. A business may choose to provide services like this as a way to attract customers.

For example, some large retail stores provide electric carts for use by customers while shopping. Some upscale retailers provide assistance for customers trying on clothes in the dressing room.

The ADA does not require these services; it leaves it up to the business to decide what services it wants to provide. The ADA simply says a business should provide the same goods and services to all of its customers, including those with disabilities.

What About Service Animals?

Businesses must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the business where customers are normally allowed to go. Service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Typically, restaurants, stores, and other businesses with a “no pets” policy must make an exception to the policy when a customer has a service animal.

If in doubt, you may ask the person if his or her animal is a service animal or ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. However, you should not expect the person to show a special ID card for the animal and you should not ask about the person’s disability. Educating your staff about the rights of people who use service animals can avoid many uncomfortable situations.

If a service animal is out of control and presents a direct threat to others, you may ask the customer to remove it from the premises.

I’ve written three posts on my website that go into great detail on how to handle this very concern: Passing the Sniff Test, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and Service animal or Emotional Support Animal? What’s the difference?

Summary of Policies, Practices & Procedures

Making it possible for customers with disabilities to purchase your goods and services is an important part of complying with the ADA.

The ADA requires businesses to make “reasonable modifications” in their normal ways of doing things when necessary to accommodate people who have disabilities.

Most accommodations involve making minor adjustments in procedures or providing some extra assistance. Usually the customer will let you know if he or she needs some kind of accommodation.

Businesses are not required to change their policies and procedures in any way that would cause a “fundamental alteration” in the nature of their goods or services, would undermine safe operation of the business, or would cause a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others.

As a rule, people with disabilities may not be excluded from services or isolated from other customers unless it is necessary for the safe operation of a business. If legitimate safety requirements make it necessary to exclude or isolate a person with a disability, they must be based on actual risks and not on stereotypes or generalizations about people with disabilities.

Businesses must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the business where customers are normally allowed to go.

If you have questions concerning your own business policies and procedures or you need help creating or modifying them, please feel free to reach out to me directly at chris@ada-pros.com.

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