by Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | September 01, 2015

In July, the Americans With Disabilities Act turned 25, and those protected by it have been the beneficiaries of far-reaching civil rights legislation.

But planners still need to be diligent to make sure their attendees will be able to participate fully at their meetings. In an article for The New York Times, Kaaryn Gustafson, a professor of law and co-director of the Center for Law, Equality and Race (CLEaR) at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, wrote, "Noncompliance with the mandates of the ADA is routine. I use a wheelchair. In the last year, I've checked into several recently renovated hotel rooms described as accessible online, only to find that the rooms were not entirely wheelchair accessible -- and sometimes unsafe."

Based on the concept that it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of a physical or mental disability, Title III of the ADA requires that those with disabilities must have the same opportunities to enjoy goods, services and facilities as their more able-bodied counterparts at any place of public accommodation. These include public places to stay, play, learn, shop, exercise and dine, as well as the transportation options to get to these venues.

"Disability" under the law is generally defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, etc.

Minor or temporary impairments expected to last six months or less, such as a broken leg, are not covered by the ADA.

The law always has required the provider of the public accommodation to do what is readily achievable to allow people to participate fully in an event held in their space. The concept of "readily achievable" is a balancing act of cost, ability and need. It is primarily an ad hoc determination; however, an effort must be made to help every person participate in and have access to the program.

In 2012 new regulations went into effect. Hotels now are required to identify the accessible features in their guest rooms, as well as ADA-friendly amenities in sufficient detail on their websites and marketing materials, so individuals with disabilities can determine if the facility meets their specific needs. Planners can help their guests by not only checking the websites but also by evaluating the property itself to see if it lives up to its claims.

In addition, swimming pools, play areas and other recreation facilities at new hotels and those just renovated have to be in compliance. Even exercise machines and boat slips are now covered by the regulations.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner of the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., specializing in meetings and hospitality law. Email questions to him at [email protected]