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ADA Non-Website Compliance for Small Businesses

ADA Non-Website Compliance for Small Businesses

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities. This includes prohibiting the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities like shopping at local businesses. More information about the ADA can be found here: https://www.ada.gov/.  
Under the ADA, “disability” means:

  • Having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as personal care, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, or working);
  • Having a record of such an impairment (such as a condition in remission); or
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment (such as a person who has severe burns but has no impairments). 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2); 28 C.F.R. § 36.104.

There are two California statutes, the Unruh Act and the California Disabled Persons Act, that incorporate the ADA into California civil rights law. These California statues allow people with disabilities to sue a violating business to recover monetary damages. The Unruh Act provides for statutory damages of $4,000 per offense, and the California Disabled Persons Act provides for statutory damages of $1,000 per offense.
The ADA establishes requirements for “public accommodations”—businesses that provide goods or services to the public. There are twelve categories of public accommodations. These include:

  • Stores, restaurants, bars, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreational facilities, private museums and schools, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, shopping malls, and other businesses.

Businesses that fall within the twelve categories will be subject to the requirements of the ADA regardless of the size of the business or the age of their buildings. Commercial facilities that do not provide goods or services directly to the public (e.g., office buildings, factories, warehouses) are only subject to the ADA’s requirements for new construction and alterations.
Below are two cases studies that highlight how the ADA impacts small businesses.
Note: This information provides some general guidance on the Public Accommodation requirements of the ADA. This document is not intended to constitute legal advice and cannot substitute for expert consultation. If you have specific questions that are related to your business, it is best to consult an attorney.

Case Study: Juan owns and runs a small specialty goods store focused on unique home goods, books, clothing, with a small coffee bar that also sales baked goods. Juan wants to use the ramp outside his store to display merchandise and attract customers.


Can Juan use the ramp space outside of his store to display merchandise?

No. Businesses are required to maintain accessible routes for all individuals, including those with disabilities. Using an access ramp to display merchandise would block individuals with mobility devices (i.e. wheelchairs, scooters, etc.) from accessing the business.  Public accommodations must allow entrance to their premises unless the business can demonstrate legitimate safety requirements compelling otherwise. Where even a single step prevents people with disabilities from entering your business, installing a ramp or a lift or regrading the walkway can provide an accessible route.


Does Juan have to accommodate special requests at his coffee bar?

It depends. 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 the item be omitted as this would be a “reasonable modification.” This would not be considered a fundamental alteration.

Is Juan required to provide handicap accessible parking for customers?

Yes. Businesses must provide accessible parking spaces for cars and vans if it is readily achievable to do so. One of every six spaces must be van accessible. Small businesses with four or fewer spaces must have one accessible parking space, but no signage is required. An accessible parking space must have an access aisle to allow a person using a wheelchair or other mobility device to get in and out of the car or van.


Case Study: Alicia runs a small café with a take-out counter, and seating for only 6 people. Alicia has a customer that requests her service animal (a dog) be allowed in. Alicia is hesitant to allow the animal in because of the small space she has in her café.  


Does Alicia have to let the customer bring in her service animal?

 Yes. Businesses are not allowed to have a blanket policy disallowing pets from entering an establishment. A “service animal” is typically a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents him or her from using these devices.  Individuals who cannot use such devices must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other means.


Does Alicia have to allow emotional support animals into her café?

No. Comfort,” “therapy,” or “emotional support” animals are not service animals under the ADA. An “Emotional Support Animal,” or ESA, is a companion animal that provides some therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability, but that is not trained to provide any particular tasks for the disabled person. An ESA can assist with severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other emotional and psychiatric disabilities. An ESA can also be any kind of animal, but dogs are common.

What if a service animal becomes disruptive or a danger to other customers, can Alicia ask the customer to leave?

Businesses may exclude service animals only if: 1) the dog is out of control and the handler cannot or does not regain control; or 2) the dog is not housebroken. If a service animal is excluded, the individual must be allowed to enter the business without the service animal.

Can Alicia ask specific questions about a customer’s disability and need for a service animal?

If it is not clear whether the dog is a service animal, a business may ask only two questions: 1) Is the animal required because of a disability? 2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?