A public accommodation is a private or government-owned organization, facility, or business that provides services or goods to the public. Privately-owned public accommodations include, but aren’t limited to, hotels, restaurants, banks, cinemas, pharmacies, amusement parks, and private schools. Government-owned public accommodations include, but aren’t limited to, museums and libraries.
Public accommodation in federal law
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Thus, according to the Constitution, public accommodations must provide equal service to everyone. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, was the first form of anti-discrimination legislation that applied to people with disabilities, as well. Under the ADA, businesses that are public accommodations must provide equal employment opportunities and equal access to services and goods to people with disabilities.
Under the law, businesses have to:
- Make reasonable accommodations for employees so they can do their jobs. For example, employers must guarantee that chairs, desks, and other office equipment are accommodating to people with disabilities
- Make reasonable accommodations for customers with disabilities to access physical facilities. Examples of such accommodations include adding restroom signs with braille and installing wheelchair-accessible entrances
Public accommodations at the state level
In the United States of America, there are state-level laws that oversee and regulate public accommodations. These exist to protect individuals from discrimination based on a number of factors, including disability. Certain states have additional laws that provide more detailed requirements to protect people with disabilities and other protected groups from discrimination.
Examples of such laws include, but aren’t limited to:
These laws complement the ADA, which applies to all states in the United States of America.
Additionally, there are a few state-level laws that include specific web accessibility requirements that apply to public entities within those states. These include the California Unruh Act and Colorado’s House Bill 21-1110.
Limitations pertaining to public accommodation laws
The ADA and other laws enacted to protect people with disabilities (and other groups) from discrimination within places of public accommodation have a narrow definition. Therefore, some establishments fall outside the scope of the law. These are:
- Religious organizations
- Private clubs with membership fees
Additionally, public accommodation laws do not address unequal treatment based on an individual’s perceived characteristics, such as race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
For safety reasons, public accommodation laws may exclude individuals who demonstrate disruptive or dangerous conduct. Because this disruptive behavior may be subjective, it can be difficult to hold violators accountable and sufficiently help those who experience discrimination.
ADA specifications for public accommodations
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has specific regulations for each type of public accommodation. The following examples outline some, but not all, of the basic requirements each business category must provide to guarantee equal access to people with disabilities.
To comply with the ADA, restaurant owners must provide:
- Parking spaces on a level surface with unobstructed building access
- Ramps for wheelchair access
- Entrances that are less than 36 inches wide
- Aisles that are at least 36 inches wide and free of obstructing obstacles
To comply with the ADA, hotels must provide:
- Wheelchair-accessible rooms
- Transportation to and from the hotel
- Bathroom layouts that ensure that the shower, sink, faucet, vanity cabinets, and toilet are accessible
Cinemas and theaters
To comply with the ADA, cinemas and theaters must provide:
- Wheelchair-accessible entrances
- Closed movie captioning and audio descriptions for patrons with hearing impairments
Additionally, cinema staff must be available to assist patrons with the audio equipment
To comply with the ADA, retail stores and businesses must provide:
- Wheelchair-accessible entrances
- Assistance for customers with disabilities
- Shopping directories for people who have vision impairments (e.g., blindness)
To comply with the ADA, medical service providers must ensure:
- Interpreters for patients who are deaf
- Accessible equipment for physical therapy
- A qualified reader for people with low-vision
To comply with the ADA, public transportation operators must provide:
- Accessible buses and trains for wheelchair users
- Braille signage for people with vision impairments
- Enough time to board and depart from a vehicle
To comply with the ADA, delivery service operators must provide:
- Accessible vehicles
- Assistance for those with mobility or hearing impairments
Websites as a place of public accommodation
Public accommodation typically refers to a business with a physical location. However, in recent years, U.S. courts have been applying ADA requirements for accessibility to businesses’ online domains, as well.
This means that websites need to be accessible under the ADA.
A website that is compliant with the ADA will typically conform to the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Despite not being codified into law, many court rulings set an earlier iteration of these standards, WCAG 2.0 Level AA, as the goal for website accessibility. At the moment, WCAG 2.1, the most up-to-date version of these guidelines, is the best measure of web accessibility under federal law. It is unlikely that a website that conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA would be sued for lack of accessibility.
Conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
WCAG is based on four basic principles that pertain to various elements of a website:
- Perceivable: Website visitors should be able to perceive the website through their senses of sight, touch, and sound
- Operable: Website visitors should be able to operate the website through alternatives to the mouse, such as the keyboard or sight-assisted navigation
- Understandable: Websites should be easily understandable for the layperson
- Robust: This involves ising clean HTML and CSS code that meets recognized standards, and ensuring compatibility with assistive technology tools that people with disabilities use to browse online
Common areas of a website that need to be adjusted to meet WCAG standards include, but aren’t limited to: