by Sarah J.F. Braley | November 01, 2010

In June 1990, a wheelchair-user facing steps to enter a meeting room or a hearing-impaired attendee in need of an interpreter had little legal recourse to have their needs met. One month later, all of that changed when the Americans With Disabilities Act became law.

Over the ensuing 20 years, there has been plenty of back-and-forth between many parties, testing the meaning of each letter of the law. The result: a massive revision of the ADA, which was enacted on Sept. 15 of this year.

The new regulations narrow some of the requirements, after businesses tried to avoid compliance and individuals tried to push the ADA envelope. For example, some facilities made the accessible seats the worst in the house, and some people showed up at hotels and events with exotic animals posing as their "service animal," says Salome Heyward, a disability management consultant in Plymouth, Mass., who provides legal guidance and training to colleges and employers on the ADA and other civil-rights statutes.

The challenges have been effective in fine-tuning the law, she says. "You don't want to make one side happy -- you want to make everybody angry to the same degree. That's how you know you've found the middle ground."

Compliance with the revised ADA regulations is required within six months (by March 15, 2011) for the easier changes, and with 18 months (March 15, 2012) for the more structural changes. Title III of the ADA applies to public accommodations, which includes hotels and convention centers, and the events that take place at such venues. The changes address fitness facilities, pools, spas and golf courses, plus much more strict rules concerning clearance space in bathrooms. The rules also address how hotel reservations are made and require reservations systems to identify the property's accessible features in guest rooms and public spaces.

"It's going to be a challenge for the industry to come into compliance," says Kevin Maher, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association in Washington, D.C. "I don't know if hoteliers want to think about what it's going to cost at a time when they're not making money."

The new rules also address service animals (the scope narrowed to individually trained dogs only, or, in some instances, trained miniature horses) and the kind of assistive transport that must be allowed (wheelchairs, of course, but now also Segway Personal Transporters). A summary of the changes is available from the website of the Department of Justice at

Also adopted in September were the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, an analysis of which can be found at The standards cover issues such as the accessibility of a facility's main entrance, line-of-sight requirements for accessible seats and measurements for hotel guest rooms.

The DOJ now is looking into regulating guest-room furniture and beds, which troubles Maher. "That affects brand identity," he says.