The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – over 20 years old – has left a positive imprint on the state of accessibility in the United States, and yet it has had unintended consequences. As yesterday’s New York Times article tells it, New York City’s small businesses have been hit by lawsuits for violating the ADA, such as lack of ramps, high shelves, and narrow hallways. Many of the lawsuits are filed by just a few lawyers, often using the same plaintiffs who collect several hundred dollars for each suit while the lawyers pocket thousands more in legal fees. Are they suing in the name of accessibility, or in the name of profit? Are they doing a service to the disability community by increasing access, or doing a disservice to honest, hard-working people with disabilities who have their own legitimate accessibility issues?
Whatever the merits of this debate, one thing is clear: there continues to be a low level of awareness of the economic benefits that accrue from being inclusive of people with disabilities. Many businesses’ view of the disability market is compliance-based, not demand-based. By focusing merely on meeting ADA regulations, businesses lose sight of a market where 1 of every 6 Americans has a disability. When a business is forced to comply with the ADA through a lawsuit, it can be tempting for business owners to express displeasure with the imperfections of the ADA, when they should really be asking themselves: How big is this market? Can we increase sales in this market? Will they be interested in our product? How can we modify our product to excite these customers?
The disability market is often viewed through the prism of needing to help someone with a disability, or needing to comply with laws that require access for people with disabilities. The best-performing businesses in the disability market do not see it that way: like any market they serve, they look at the demand drivers of the disability market, and develop, manufacture and sell the products that connect with this market. In a time and age when baby boomers are experiencing age-related disabilities, and the political discourse inevitably turns to health care and medical technology, businesses must adapt to this crucial reality.
Yes, even a business that “gets it” in the disability market will still get sued under the ADA for some reason or other. In most cases, it will be an honest mistake that customers, already familiar with the business, will be quick to forgive, and the business will keep on selling to this market.
If there are more of these forward-thinking, profit-oriented businesses, there will be less opportunity for some lawyers to leverage ADA regulations purely for profit. The ADA was created in the spirit of providing the same level of access for people with and without disabilities. If businesses are committed to the same accessibility credo that spawned the ADA, then they have gained access to nearly 20% of the population of the United States.