The Accessibility Puzzle: Navigating ADA Requirements

In the years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the lodging industry has faced many hurdles—and many opportunities—in implementing the far-reaching civil rights law. The past two decades have been a mixed bag of regulatory enforcement, litigation, and gradual recognition of the roles ADA and accessible design play in our industry. Since 1990, hoteliers have spent billions of dollars making their facilities accessible to individuals with disabilities in compliance with the ADA, not only because it’s the law but also because it’s their mission to make all guests feel comfortable and welcome.

“ADA compliance for new properties is easier than older ones since new hotel compliance standards usually come from the brands,” says Raj Shendge, COO of Ohio-based SAP Hotels. ADA compliance for older properties is trickier. He notes that when rules change in the middle of the game it becomes much more difficult. “No lawyer, city official, fire marshal, brand manager knows what is happening.”

That’s why when investing in a hotel, potential owners should take their own proactive steps to avoid the risk of an ADA lawsuit. Unlike some building construction issues, an owner cannot get a permit or certificate of ADA compliance from a local commission. However, the owner generally has responsibility for ADA compliance at their hotels, says Minh Vu, a partner at the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP and the leader of the firm’s ADA Title III team. “In the past few years, we’ve seen decisions holding that hotel owners cannot sue their architects and consultants who have designed non-compliant hotels even if there is a contract that requires the designs to comply with the ADA.”

In new construction and renovations, architects often fail to provide an appropriate variety of accessible rooms that would offer guests with disabilities options comparable to those available to non-disabled guests, Vu says. “This can be a very expensive mistake. Oftentimes hotels are purchased without a thorough ADA review so that the new owners are unaware of the issues present at their new hotel.”


Yet architect John Salman, president of Universal Designers and Consultants, a team of expert architects and accessibility professionals based in Maryland, says, “[When ADA passed], the industry had not yet recognized the aging of America and the enormous market of travelers with disabilities and how they influence the lodging decisions of the even larger market of those who travel with them.”

But it didn’t take long for hoteliers to comprehend the value of people with disabilities as a target market. The Open Doors Organization (ODO) estimates that annual travel expenditure by American adults with disabilities now exceeds $15 billion, up from the $13.5 billion first reported by ODO and Harris Interactive in 2002. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 56.7 million people living in the United States had some kind of disability in 2010, and these numbers are projected to grow as the population ages.

Despite many ADA elements being rarely, if ever, used, taking a forward approach to accessibility can be a win-win solution. “We never get requests for accessible features that we don’t have or ones that are not required under the ADA,” Shendge says. For every accessible aspect of his hotels that are never used like teletypewriter machines and pool lifts, there are others like ramps, parking, and handicapped rooms that are accessed regularly.

Originally viewed by some in the industry as a nuisance, the ADA has affected our society in many ways, from the construction of our built environment to our perception of the job functions employees with disabilities are capable of performing. Salman, whose firm provides accessible design, facility evaluation, and expert witness services, notes that, “hotel owners who have a long-term stake in the viability and profitability of their property embrace integrated accessibility as a cost-effective way of improving the property, increasing guest satisfaction, and reducing the potential for complaints and lawsuits.”

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  1. Ah, so it’s the owners and architects, eh? What about the hotels and their management companies and management who don’t know the basics of the ADA and how many, for example, Deaf kits they need to have based on hotel size?

    The ADA may be the law; hotels and the entire hospitality industry (in which I work) are clueless when it comes to accessibilithy and accommodation. Ask a hotel owner, GM, sales person – anyone connected to a hotel – if they’ve ever attempted to navigate their own hotel as if they were someone with a mobility or other disability. The responses will be something like “Oh I don’t have to do that – we’re in compliance [with the ADA].” How do they know that? Someone told them to say it.

    Or “I don’t have to do that – I booked a group and they did the site visit and told me what I needed to know.” Nope — it’s not the same.

    My laughter was great at the biz opportunity for the market for people with disabilities. Now that the LGBT, Latino, African-American, and Boomer markets have been exploited, it’s the disability community next!

    Thanks for these insights in the post.

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