by Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | February 01, 2012

Since 1990, when the Americans With Disa­bilities Act became law, those protected by it have been the beneficiaries of far-reaching civil rights legislation. Based on the concept that it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of a physical or mental disability, Title III of 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 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 ADA.

How does ADA affect your meeting? The law always has required the provider of the public accommodation to do what is readily achievable to allow people to fully participate 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, effort must be made to help every person participate in and have access to the program.

But changes are on the horizon. On March 15, new regulations will go into effect.

The New Rules The revised standards cover the use of service animals, wheelchairs, and other manually and power-driven mobility aids (including Segways).

Hotels also now are required to identify the accessible features in their guest rooms and 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.

In addition, after March 15, a number of other barriers must be gone. For any new construction or remodeling, the swimming pools, play areas and other recreation facilities all have to be in compliance -- including golf courses. Even exercise machines and boat slips are covered by these more specific regulations.

Also addressed under the ADA revisions is access to and use of the Internet. Through the years, several lawsuits have dealt with websites that did not enable people with low or no vision to use them. To comply now, each element on the pages needs to work with screen-reader programs that speak the text. This includes encoding tags for images to describe what a seeing person gets to look at.

Know thy group It is imperative for meeting professionals to know these rules and to find out the specific needs of their individual attendees. Because the act does not say who bears responsibility, but rather imposes responsibility upon all unless otherwise noted, comprehensive contract provisions outlining who is accountable for each accommodation are imperative.

For sample clauses related to ADA that can be tailored to your needs, go here. Still confused? Consult with legal counsel.