June 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 1999 Current Issue
June 1999 Jonathan HowePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner


The Meeting Planner and the ADA

What are your obligations concerning disabled attendees?

Following are answers to readers' legal questions. If you have a question you would like considered for future publication, please e-mail your concern to askhowe@cahners.com. We regret all questions cannot be answered.

Q: If a property was built prior to the implementation of ADA laws, what obligations does it have to accommodate disabled attendees?

Susan R. Gambalvo
Conference Planner
Science Applications International Corp.
McLean, Va.

A: One of the most dramatic pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed is the Americans With Disabilities Act, which went into effect in January 1992. Since then, most of the focus has been on Title II, which deals with employment discrimination issues. It is only recently that Title III, addressing public accommodations, has come into focus.

  • What is a public accommodation? This is any place open to the public, including hotels and convention centers. When a meeting planner uses a public accommodation in the United States, the planner's activities are subject to the ADA.
  • What does the law really require? Public accommodations are required to afford individuals with disabilities equal enjoyment of its goods and services. This requirement applies to the facility, the planner and the program. The disabled individual must be integrated into the event or facility in a setting appropriate to his needs. Providing different or separate goods or services is prohibited unless the individual would not otherwise be able to participate fully. If separate programs are offered, the individual must have the option of participating in the regular programs.
  • What is the planner's role in fulfilling public accommodations requirements? Whenever a planner uses a public facility, the ADA applies. Because most events are held in public accommodations, the planner and facility should delineate who has responsibility for what. Sample contract language is available (here). If such a provision is not in the contract, then each party is liable for its own faults and those of the other party.
  • What obligation do planners have to provide for a person with a disability? Planners must do whatever is "readily achievable," as the law states. They cannot charge extra for providing the service but can spread the cost among all attendees so the fees are equal across the board.
  • What about transportation? If the planner provides transportation for all people who are participating in the meeting, then steps must be taken to accommodate a person with a disability.
  • What are the obligations of facilities built before the ADA was enacted? The law says any new construction or alteration must be done in full conformity with the ADA. For existing buildings, the facility is required to do what is readily achievable to meet ADA requirements. This means parking lots, ramps and the like must be fixed. Hotels are required to do as much as possible to comply with the act's provisions, from changing menus in the restaurant to installing automatic entry doors. Be aware that leasing a facility that violates the ADA would be a further violation of the act, possibly creating liability for the event sponsor.

    Most facilities are prepared to work with planners to accommodate attendees with special needs. It is important that planners communicate how many attendees have impairments that qualify for ADA protection. Some quick dos and don'ts for working with people with disabilities:

  • DO be sensitive to their needs.
  • DO remember you can choose to provide the least expensive auxiliary aid or service, provided it enables the individuals to participate effectively.
  • DO be aware that you can levy reasonable deposits for special equipment, provided the deposits are completely refundable.
  • DO consider inquiring about special needs on registration forms, but DON'T use the information for discriminatory purposes, and DO follow up to determine the best means to meet those needs.
  • DO visit the facility to assess its accessibility before signing a contract.
  • DON'T ask if a facility is accessible; ask how it is accessible.
  • Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law.

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