Understanding ADA Requirements: A Beginner’s Guide

Jan 17 2024 VITAC
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to curtail discrimination against individuals with disabilities. This landmark legislation was a significant step towards ensuring equal opportunities and access across various aspects of public life. Over the years, however, rather than focusing solely on the accessibility of physical spaces and work environments, the ADA has had to evolve to support the needs of our increasingly digital society.

As the ADA continues to change and expand, professionals across every industry are tasked with keeping up with accessibility requirements to effectively support community members with disabilities. ADA compliance is vitally important for businesses and spaces both physical and virtual. In this blog post, we will discuss the basic requirements outlined by the ADA and explore proven strategies for successfully promoting accessibility in the workplace, classroom, and beyond.

Understanding ADA Requirements

The ADA establishes clear standards for ensuring that people with disabilities enjoy the same experiences and opportunities as their non-disabled peers. The legislation is divided into five distinct sections that outline ADA requirements as they pertain to different areas of public life. These areas of ADA coverage are:

  • Employment
  • Public Services: State and Local Government
  • Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities
  • Telecommunications
  • Miscellaneous Provisions

Compliance with the guidelines outlined in these sections can help to ensure that public and private institutions provide equitable experiences for people with disabilities. Adhering closely to these requirements is the best way for organizations to protect themselves from ADA enforcement actions and legal challenges.

It is important to understand that in today’s tech-centric world, the need for accessibility extends beyond just physical spaces and environments. Digital spaces like websites and applications must also adhere to accessibility requirements to ensure all users can engage equitably with online content. There are four key principles to keep in mind when working towards achieving web accessibility. These principles are commonly represented via the acronym ‘POUR’:

Perceivable

Operable

Understandable

Robust 

We will explore each of these principles in greater in the subsequent sections but, put simply, web accessibility requirements seek to ensure that virtual spaces can be accessed and enjoyed equitably by users of all backgrounds and abilities.

A blue and white handicapped parking space sign painted on the pavement.

Physical Accessibility Requirements

The ADA outlines certain requirements that pertain specifically to physical spaces. The legislation breaks down minimum accessibility requirements for building updates and new construction that are intended to make public and private spaces more accessible for individuals with physical and other disabilities.

Here are some elements of physical spaces that must adhere to physical accessibility requirements:

  • Entrances and Exits: Entrances and exits should be free of physical barriers that may impede access for wheelchair users and other individuals with physical disabilities.
  • Parking Spaces and Signage: Public and private businesses should have clearly marked, designated parking for visitors with disabilities.
  • Ramps and Handrails: The ADA outlines specific construction requirements to ensure wheelchair ramps are safe for all users.
  • Elevators and Lifts: Elevators must be large enough to accommodate wheelchair users and must allow for unassisted entry and exit by riders.
  • Restrooms and Facilities: Restrooms must be designed with accessibility in mind and be marked with clear signage that includes pictorial symbols and raised Braille characters.

Communication Accessibility Requirements

In addition to its requirements for physical spaces, the ADA also outlines specific guidelines intended to make communications more accessible to individuals with disabilities and specific learning needs. The telecommunications section of the ADA establishes that telephone and internet companies must provide accommodations for users with hearing and speech disabilities. These communication accessibility requirements also extend to certain types of media, such as federally funded public service announcements and other broadcasts.

There are several assistive technologies and other resources currently available to professionals who wish to improve the accessibility of their communications. For example, sign language interpreters can be incorporated into public service broadcasts to make the information being shared more readily accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Similarly, captioning and transcription technology are invaluable tools for making audio and video content more accessible and engaging. In fact, the ADA requires that all federally funded public service announcements feature accurate close captions to support the needs of viewers with disabilities. Captioning and transcription tools essentially convert audio-centric information to readable, accessible formats. These written resources are often invaluable to audience members with hearing loss, auditory processing disorders, and certain neurodivergent conditions.

A group meeting in an office space, men and women are seated around a circular table

Employment and Workplace Accessibility Requirements

Beyond the standards presented for communication and physical accessibility, the ADA also establishes certain requirements for employment accessibility. The ADA mandates that people with disabilities should have access to the same opportunities as people without disabilities. It also makes clear that employers must provide reasonable workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Steps may need to be taken to provide more accessible facilities to employees with physical disabilities or to ensure Zoom calls and webinars are sufficiently inclusive of team members with hearing loss and specific learning needs. Employers should consider investing in periodic training initiatives for staff at every level to promote greater awareness of the need for accessible and inclusive work environments.

Website and Digital Accessibility Requirements

As previously discussed, the constraints of the ADA have been tested as more and more communications and business practices shift to digital formats. In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to resolve a circuit split over the question of whether the ADA applies to websites and let stand a previous circuit court ruling stating that accessibility requirements apply to virtual spaces as well as brick-and-mortar facilities.

In addition to the requirements outlined by the ADA, virtual spaces are also subject to the requirements posited by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Initially developed in the late 1990s, WCAG has undergone several updates and now features a robust set of requirements for accessible web design.

WCAG dictates that all virtual spaces should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust and makes specific recommendations intended to ensure maximum website accessibility for individuals with disabilities. It also outlines strategies for developing online spaces that can be easily accessed and operated by people who utilize screen readers and establishes best practices for comprehensive website testing to further enhance digital accessibility.

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Compliance and Enforcement of ADA Requirements

ADA compliance is vital to ensuring our physical and virtual spaces remain accessible and inclusive for all. To that end, there are certain enforcement actions taken by government agencies against entities that fall short of meeting ADA guidelines. The government entities tasked with enforcing certain sections of the ADA include:

  • The Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • The Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • The U.S. Access Board

Additionally, individuals and advocacy groups can file lawsuits against organizations and other entities to enforce ADA requirements and seek damages and other penalties for established violations. Individuals can also report suspected ADA violations directly to the DOJ online, by mail, or via fax. These complaints will then be investigated by the appropriate department or agency to determine the best possible resolution for all parties involved.

VITAC Can Help You Become ADA Compliant

The Americans with Disabilities Act was a much-needed call to action for businesses and other institutions around the country and resulted in greater accessibility for individuals with disabilities and an overwhelming increase in the general public’s awareness of accessibility issues. The importance of compliance with ADA requirements cannot be overstated, as these standards help to ensure that physical and virtual spaces remain inclusive of people of all backgrounds and abilities. As our society continues to evolve, the need for comprehensive accessibility initiatives will only grow. Assistive technologies and other accessibility resources can be invaluable tools for professionals looking to meet the ever-changing needs of their employees, clients, and communities at large. If you’re interested in learning more about using assistive technologies to support ADA guidelines, reach out today to speak to a member of the VITAC team.