When it comes to lawsuits, small businesses have been around the block before. In fact, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform reports that in 2010, small businesses shouldered $105.4 billion of the nation’s tort liability costs. Throw malpractice lawsuits in the mix, and that number soars to $133.4 billion. (For perspective, larger businesses only paid out about $30 billion in lawsuits.)
So maybe the last piece of news you want to hear right now is that it’s easier than ever to sue small businesses over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act is intended to protect people with disabilities from being discriminated against for public services and employment, but it seems small-business owners are bearing the brunt of ADA-related customer lawsuits.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, this year, plaintiffs filed 1,939 lawsuits against small businesses, citing violations of the ADA’s accessibility requirements. In Florida, Arbetter Hot Dogs Miami settled a disabled-access lawsuit to the tune of $10,000 in renovations and $14,000 in legal fees.
But that doesn’t mean you should let fate sort out whether your business will meet a similar outcome. If your small business is open to the public, you could save a lot of money in legal fees ($14k or more, even) by initiating accessibility upgrades on your own.
Does Your Small Business Have to Comply with ADA Accessibility Guidelines?
Perhaps $10k in renovations just isn’t in the cards for your budget. That’s no small chunk of change, especially if you’re a one-person operation. At the same time, if your business gets a lot of foot traffic, forgoing accessibility revamps could make your business a prime target for lawsuits.
Plus, there’s the fact that if your business is a public accommodation, Title III of the ADA states that you must provide reasonable access to amenities and services. You might be surprised by just how many types of businesses can be classified as public accommodations:
- Restaurants, bakeries, and bars.
- Grocery stores and food markets.
- Hotels and motels.
- Retail stores.
- Financial institutions and banks.
- Legal offices.
- Healthcare providers.
- Public transportation.
- Recreation venues.
- Education facilities.
- Social service centers.
- And more.
Chances are that if you allow clients and customers to enter your place of business, you must comply with accessibility regulations.
Outfox the Lawyers: Upgrade Your Business to Meet Accessibility Standards
Instead of thinking of accessibility renovations as a financial burden, think of them as an opportunity to reach more customers. After all, more than 50 million Americans have disabilities, and making your business as inclusive as possible could be a real selling point and generate good PR.
So what are some things you can do to make your building accessible to all? Consider the following:
- Remove barriers, such as a step to an entrance.
- Provide accessible parking spaces.
- Provide an accessible route that allows customers using mobility devices to access goods and services (e.g., make sure aisles and hallways are wide enough).
- Install lower counters so customers in mobility devices can comfortably reach them.
- Install power-operated doors.
- Make material available in accessible formats (e.g., Braille, audiotape, or large print).
To go the extra mile, train your staff in common accessibility issues so they are ready to help customers and clients of all types. For example, you may hire an interpreter if your business specializes in complicated, professional transactions. Or maybe you could simply offer curbside assistance. For more help, check out the guide, “ADA Update: A Primer For Small Business.”
If you need more incentive to comply, the IRS offers a Disabled Access Credit (Section 44) on the alterations small businesses make to meet ADA regulations. So long as your business has 30 or fewer full-time employees or makes $1 million or less in revenue, you may be able to deduct the expenses your business spends accessibility renovations.