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Ms. Pohlid

ADA Compliance

ADA Compliancy Toward Accommodating Blind & Low Vision Guests

By Kathleen Pohlid, Founder and Managing Member, Pohlid, PLLC

Co-authored by Soy Williams, AIA, President, Soy Williams Consulting

Hotel establishments that do not evaluate and prepare their facilities to accommodate persons with visual disabilities are making a mistake. The number of persons with visual impairments and disabilities is likely to grow dramatically. This poses significant implications for the hotel industry.

According to some estimates, the number of older Americans in the United States is projected to increase by 135% between years 2000 and 2050. Historically, 1 person out of 25 was over the age of 65 at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1989, that number increased to 1 in 8. By 2030, 1 out of every 5 people in the U.S. is projected to be over the age of 65.

Since a significant portion of visual impairments is age related, these statistics confirm the number of people in the United States with vision loss (approximately 25 million) is rising dramatically. As the number of seniors increase, so does their desire for leisure travel and retirement vacations. This means that hotels and resorts will likely experience an increase in the number of guests who are blind or have low vision.

Hotel establishments have good business reasons to accommodate guests with vision impairment since they are part of a growing customer base. Avoiding legal pitfalls should also be a good incentive to initiating proactive measures to accommodate these guests and address their concerns.

Americans with Disabilities Act

By now, the ADA is a term commonly recognized among hotel owners and operators. Signed into law in 1990, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services or facilities by those who own or operate places of public accommodation - including most hotels and places of lodging. In general, this requires hotels to modify their policies and procedures, provide auxiliary aids and services, provide accessible and usable new facilities and remove architectural barriers in existing facilities .
Since the ADA mandates goods, services, and accommodations be provided to individuals with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate, different or separate services are not permitted, unless such action is necessary to provide accommodation that is as effective as that provided to others. Therefore, from an ADA compliance perspective, it is important to conduct a comprehensive audit of all services and facilities provided to ensure they accommodate individuals with disabilities including vision impairments.

New ADA Regulations and Standards

The ADA regulations and standards, which implement disability non-discrimination laws by prohibiting certain actions and mandating others, are the cornerstones of ADA compliance. The U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") enforces, issues and interprets the ADA regulations. In 2010, the DOJ issued revised ADA regulations and published the new 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design (the "2010 Standards").

The 2010 Standards include new design and construction requirements for providing facilities that are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities and revisions to the "current" or "old" standards published in 1991 (the "1991 Standards"). Many of the new requirements went into effect on March 15, 2011. The new 2010 Standards become mandatory on March 15, 2012. Both the revised regulations and the new 2010 standards are available through the DOJ website at www.ada.gov.

Until the 2010 standards become mandatory on March 15, 2012, hotels have two ADA compliance options: either the 1991 Standards or the 2010 Standards. On or after March 15, 2012, compliance with the 2010 standards is required.

Issues Affecting Guests with Vision Loss - Beyond Architectural Access

There are several specific areas where owners and operator can provide greater access and usability to guests who are blind or have low vision. In addition to achieving ADA compliance, many of the accommodation measures require little or no reconstruction to hotel facilities, while producing improved customer relations and protecting against potential personal injury liability. Evaluating existing policies and practices to comply with the revised ADA regulations is a good starting point.

Service Animals

Under the ADA, hotels are required to make reasonable modifications to its policies and procedures to accommodate service animals. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform. Guide dogs used by some individuals with visual disabilities are one type of service animal. The amended ADA regulations more narrowly define service animals to mean service dogs, thereby excluding other animals.

Miniature horses, however, provide a wide array of services to their handlers as in guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision. In addition to accommodating service animals, the ADA also requires places of lodging to make reasonable modifications in its policies to permit miniature horses that are trained to assist persons with a disability.

Hotels must implement appropriate policies and training of staff - especially those who routinely have direct contact with guests - to know the requirements for accommodating service animals and trained miniature horses.

Auxiliary Aids and Services

Owners and operators of hotels and other lodging facilities must take steps necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities. For a blind guest, that may include providing taped emergency evacuation procedures, information regarding hotel amenities in large print, Braille or audio recording, and training hotel staff to read out loud a menu to a restaurant guest or describe the general layout of the guest room or the location of an amenity inside the room.

Auxiliary aids and services may include the acquisition or modification of special equipment or device if necessary to provide effective communication. Providing, for example, aurally delivered material in the form of a taped or other audio recording may not be effective without a tape player or digital voice recorder/player. Guests should not be charged for these services as the ADA prohibits establishments from assessing a surcharge or fee for providing accommodations, including auxiliary aids . Additional efforts may be necessary when accommodating someone with multiple sensory disabilities, for example, guests with hearing disabilities and low vision. Selection of the appropriate auxiliary aid or service should be done in consultation with the person who has the disability. Effective communication skills are key assets towards facilitating accommodation and promoting customer relations. Train your staff to be comfortable and effective in communicating with persons who are blind or have low vision.

Architectural Barriers

The ADA requires new lodging facilities to be designed and constructed to be "readily accessible to and usable" by individuals with disabilities. In older existing facilities, barriers to access must be removed. An example of an architectural barrier to a visually impaired guest is an object that protrudes into a corridor or hallway at a height undetectable by a cane user.
A common example is a drinking fountain mounted to a wall in a corridor leading to restrooms. Another is a row of ornate wall sconces protruding from the wall at a typical mounting height of, say, six feet above the floor. These objects are easily avoided by persons who can readily see them, but are a potential hazards or source of injury for someone who is blind or has low vision using a long cane. In some circumstances it may be advisable to recess wall-mounted objects into a niche or an alcove. Each potential hazard should be evaluated and modified or removed as necessary.

Some architectural elements that provide information to guests with vision impairments have become so commonplace that they go unnoticed by many who do not need such features. Braille and symbol designations located on an elevator door panel, as well as sounds that indicate the direction of travel (up or down) of an elevator are examples of such elements. Raised, tactile symbols and letters designating the men's and women's restrooms, and room numbers displayed in Braille are other examples.

Lighting and Finishes

Poor lighting not only affect the ability of persons who have low vision to read and perform basic function, it can also make it difficult for vision impaired individuals to recognize and avoid hazards such as steps or stairs. Highly reflective floor wall and ceiling finishes can create glare or extremes of lights and shadows that render the ability of individuals with low vision useless. Low contrasting floor coverings between floor level changes can be hazardous to guests without any vision impairments. Aside from ADA compliance issues, owners and operators should be aware that accommodating guests with vision loss may also provide derivative safety benefits. Slipping, tripping, and falling are among the leading causes of injuries to guests and customers in most industries, including among hotel establishments.

Addressing these hazards will enable your establishment to minimize the potential for guest injuries. Providing an accommodating and welcoming environment will protect against legal liability and promote excellent guest and customer service.

alt text This article was co-authored by Soy Williams. Ms. Williams is a registered architect with more than 25 years of experience in disability-related issues. Ms. Williams specializes in accessibility requirements of federal civil rights laws spanning six decades as well as model, state and local accessibility codes and standards. She was involved in the revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines in 1993 and was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board in 2000. During her tenure she saw the completion of the revisions to the ADA guidelines which are now the U.S. Department of Justice 2010 Standards for accessible buildings and facilities. Ms. William brings uniquely balanced experience and understanding to her practice of providing accessibility consulting services to private and public entities throughout the United States. She can be contacted at (305) 238-9450 or soy@soywilliamsconsulting.com.

Kathleen Pohlid is the founder and managing member of the law firm of Pohlid, PLLC in the Nashville, Tennessee area. She advises business clients in matters including employment, occupational safety and health, Americans with Disabilities Act (accommodation & discrimination) and regulatory compliance. Her goal is to enable clients to comply with the myriad of state and federal laws to succeed in their business, mindful of the challenges facing businesses and the importance of cost effectiveness. She has advised and represented businesses in a variety of industries including restaurants, hotels, and other entities in the tourism and hospitality industries. She has over 20 years of combined federal government and private sector experience in employment law and litigation. She holds an AV® rating from Martindale-Hubbell (highest for professional competency and ethics), a B.S. degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and a J.D. from Samford University. Ms. Pohlid can be contacted at 615-369-0810 or kpohlid@pohlid.com Please visit http://www.pohlid.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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