COMMENTARY

Complying With the Americans With
Disabilities Act

Joseph S. Eastern, MD

June 25, 2021

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) carries mandates most physician practices must follow to make their offices accessible so as to not discriminate against patients with disabilities when providing care. And 7 years ago, the government raised the penalties for failing to do so. So it might be time to re-educate yourself on what the ADA requires.

ADA compliance is not an issue that we talk about or provide training for in medical schools or with our professional organizations. Since fines for small businesses are now $75,000 for a first offense and $150,000 for each subsequent violation, this could be an expensive oversight that malpractice and other liability policies will not cover.

Dr Joseph Eastern

A 2019 study in Boston examined physicians' knowledge of legal obligations when caring for patients with disabilities. Researchers concluded that most physicians interviewed "exhibited a superficial or incorrect understanding of their legal responsibilities to patients with a disability." If you feel you're in that boat, you might want to consult federal guidance with information and common questions physicians ask about their ADA obligations.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone with "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities"; someone with a record of such an impairment; or someone who is "regarded as having such an impairment." Among the ADA standards required for accessible exam rooms, according to the guidance:

  • The entry door to the exam room should be a minimum width of 32 inches when the door is opened at a 90-degree angle.

  • There should be a minimum of 30 by 48 inches of clear floor space next to the exam table.

  • An accessible exam table should be able to be lowered to the height of the patient's wheelchair seat, 17 to 19 inches from the floor.

This does not mean that all of your exam rooms must meet these standards, of course; but if you see any patients with disabilities — and who doesn't? — you need at least one room that meets the criteria.

Federal guidance also includes requirements on removal of architectural barriers, accessible parking, and entrance and maneuvering spaces — which apply to both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Among them:

  • Designated accessible parking spaces must be included among any parking the business provides for the public "if doing so is readily achievable." Those parking spaces should be the closest to the accessible entrance, on level ground. The spaces should be at least eight feet wide, with an access aisle on either side.

  • For accessible spaces for cars, the adjacent access aisle must be at least five feet wide; for van spaces, eight feet wide.

  • "If achievable," an accessible service counter must have a maximum height of 36 inches, with a clear floor space of 30 by 48 inches to permit the use of a wheelchair.

A common misconception is that only new construction and alterations need to be accessible, and that older facilities are "grandfathered," but that's not true. Because the ADA is a civil rights law and not a building code, ADA rules apply equally to all facilities, young and old. This is particularly important to remember in light of the long-standing cottage industry of attorneys who sue small businesses for alleged ADA violations.

Another common mistake made by physicians who lease their office space is to assume that their landlord is responsible for meeting all ADA obligations. In fact, The ADA places the legal obligation on both the landlord and the tenant. The landlord and the tenant may decide among themselves who will actually make the changes and provide the aids and services, but both remain legally responsible.

Another aspect that you might not have thought of is access to your website. While ADA applicability to online services remains vague, lawsuits have been filed, and are likely to increase. Online accessibility issues that have been identified include:

  • Ability to find and process information on a website (e.g., providing audio descriptions for video content, for the sight-impaired).

  • Ability to navigate and use a website (e.g., ensuring that all site functions are easily accessible with only a keyboard).

  • Ability to comprehend all information (including clearly understandable error messages).

Hearing-impaired patients present their own considerations for delivering adequate care, which I will discuss in my next column.

Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at dermnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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