There’s no doubt that web-accessibility ADA lawsuits have exploded in recent years. The research team at UsableNet, which provides accessibility to websites and apps, found 2,285 of these cases were filed in 2018, up 181 percent from 2017. Out of those cases, 11 percent were related to foodservice businesses, with most filed in New York and Florida. “It’s unfortunate that various lawsuits have people taking advantage,” Pike says. “It makes it difficult for companies like us to show how easy compliance is.”
There are many issues that limited-service restaurant operators need to consider when it comes to the ADA and disabled customers, says Harry Kelly, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of law firm Nixon Peabody who deals with real estate and accessibility matters.
“The first issue that should confront everyone is a customer with mobility issues,” he says. “You have to think about the ramp that gets you to the building, the parking spaces, and whether the door is wide enough to handle someone in a wheelchair.”
Bathroom accessibility is an obvious matter, but so is a newer piece of equipment like an ordering kiosk, which brings height requirements into play. Even the drive thru should be considered, he says, including factors such as the height of window openings and the ability of some customers to communicate with employees who normally take orders through speakers.
Although many quick-service and fast-casual restaurants are housed in new buildings that are constructed with the ADA in mind, the requirements also pertain to older structures—even historic ones to a certain degree. “Historic status doesn’t exempt you from the ADA,” Kelly says, and applicable regulations say you must still make changes to comply with the ADA “to the maximum extent feasible.” It is harder to make feasibility arguments when major renovations are involved.
And while most people think of the ADA in terms of physical issues, the digital ones are just as crucial as technology and its benefits expand. The internet provides convenience and information; if brands aren’t vigilant about digital compliance, various groups can be excluded and even blocked from getting information.
“Everything has moved so fast,” Pike says. As a result of the lightning-fast speed with which technology has progressed, many brands do not understand how their digital compliance or lack thereof is impacting people with disabilities and their access to the marketplace. As a result, he says, operators often don’t consider designing accessible websites from the outset.
Theodossakos says the most common physical accessibility violation that triggers lawsuits involves parking lots, whether it’s the size or number of handicapped spaces or clear and accurate marking and signage for those spaces. Accessible routes into businesses, doors that are not only wide enough but are easy to open, and bathroom issues are other common elements that bring legal action.
She tells clients to have a plan in place to deal with all aspects of the ADA. Training employees on the law, teaching them to conduct checks on bathrooms and points of access, watching for procedural hiccups, and continuously performing updates to make sure restaurants are within the law are helpful measures. “You have an ongoing duty to be compliant,” she says.