In addition to being a risk management consultant extraordinaire, I am a passionate skier who also teaches people with disabilities how to ski. So it’s important to me for people with disabilities to have the opportunity to take part in snowsports and other aspects of daily life. I get annoyed when businesses (associations, stores, restaurants, movie theatres and ski resorts) are not accessible to people with disabilities. I experienced this frustration in December when I co-presented a session on mainstreaming children with special needs into traditional snowsports lessons. The audience included snowsports schools’ directors, managers, staff trainers and program directors of adaptive programs
The workshop began with what we thought would be a brief overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). However we spent 2 hours explaining how the ADA applies to snowsports schools (click here for information on public accommodation requirements). Most people know the ADA as a civil rights, employment anti-discrimination law not as it applies to accessibility.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised almost 18 years after the Department of Justice issued its regulations (January 1992) many people still don’t know or understand the public accommodation requirements of the ADA. After all it took over 20 years after the 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision for public schools to be desegregated. Stereotypes take a very long time to change.
Naturally I have to look at this non-compliance issue from a risk management perspective. First I recognize that very few associations or businesses have formal risk management programs with goals, objectives and policy statements. Therefore employees and key volunteers only occasionally consider the risk implications of their decisions and usually as an excuse to not do something (too risky). However my business mission is to get associations to consider risk when making both strategic and operational decisions so I am using this as a teachable moment.
A risk assessment of the ADA and similar state laws could lead an organization to decide it is acceptable to be non-compliant. The possibility of a public accommodation discrimination complaint being filed against you is probably remote and a chance you may be willing to take. Further, some ski area staff (and other organizations) justify their non-compliance by the “safety” exception that people with disabilities participating in snowsports or other activities present an unacceptable danger to themselves and others. However the cost to defend against a discrimination complaint can be expensive. Disability attorneys, depositions, meetings, and potential public relations issues are costly. Your association may also be subject to fines such as $55,000 for the first ADA violation. Finally, if you lose, the government (federal, state or local) will require immediate, strict accommodation compliance including staff disability training which will be more expensive than implementing the proper programs and services now.
From an economic perspective, non-compliance may be a valid business decision but short-sighted. There are non-economic reasons to consider such as being legal and more importantly doing the right thing. Even without a formal risk management program your association has corporate goals and values which hopefully include valuing your members. Your association no doubt has people with disabilities as members, employees of member companies and perhaps some of your employees. Have you thought about how accessible your office, web site, meetings, benefits and other events to people with disabilities? Providing access often involves additional costs – deaf interpreters, lift buses, materials printed in Braille or large print, and closed captioning. However many accommodations cost nothing but a little extra effort –wider aisles, wheelchair seating (other than in the back of the room), help at a buffet for people in a wheelchair, visually impaired, uses crutches or other assistive devices, ensuring the restaurant or facility is accessible (a lot still aren’t) and simple paper and pencil to ease communication.
For most temporarily able-bodied people (known as TABS since we are only one accident or illness away from a disability, we just don’t think about accessibility. Even as an adaptive instructor I don’t always think about it. While traveling with a friend who uses a wheelchair at his suggestion I had to call restaurants and other public places to make sure they were accessible. Accessibility is an issue of personal dignity and common decency for people with disabilities – not just a legal requirement.
So I’ll get off my soapbox but ask you to think about the ways your association provides accommodations to people with disabilities. There are many disability discrimination laws in addition to the ADA that you need to be in compliance but regardless of the legal issues I urge you to find the barriers your association has for full participation by people with disabilities. It is in your best interest to make sure your association is “disability friendly.” Make the accommodations because it is the right thing to do not just to avoid fines and defense costs. It is good risk management and best business practices.