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How the Americans with Disabilities Act Affects Small Nonprofits

| Updated November 28, 2017

Ensure your nonprofit's ADA compliance for people with disabilities

Is your nonprofit complying with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA)? If you're not sure, your nonprofit could be missing out on hiring and serving a diverse group of people — and face hefty fines. Find out what the law requires and how to make sure your services are accessible to people who have disabilities.

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a federal law that grants civil rights protection to people who have disabilities. Under the ADA, a disability is defined as a physical or mental limitation that substantially impairs a major life activity, such as seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, doing manual tasks, standing, lifting, working or thinking. Amendments to the ADA, which took effect in 2009, expanded the definition of disability to include epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, major depression and bipolar disorder.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people who have disabilities and ensures equal opportunity in the following areas:

  • Employment. The ADA applies to organizations that have 15 or more employees.
  • State and local government services. The ADA applies to all state and local government activities, regardless of size or receipt of federal funds.
  • Public accommodations. The ADA applies to businesses and nonprofit service providers that are generally open to the public, commercial facilities, private entities that offer certain courses and examinations, and private entities that provide transportation.
  • Transportation. The ADA bans discrimination in public transportation services, such as city buses.
  • Telecommunications. The ADA requires telephone companies to provide telecommunications relay services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This operator service allows people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or have a speech disorder to place calls via a keyboard or assistive device.

A violation of the ADA should be brought to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who may sue the employer in federal court or give the employee the right to sue in federal court on his or her own. Complaints may also be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, which may result in action against your nonprofit. A first violation may carry a fine of up to $55,000.

How does the ADA apply to small nonprofits?

The part of the ADA that most directly applies to small nonprofits is the public accommodations section, which bans discrimination by people who own, operate, lease to or rent from places of public accommodation, including:

  • Social service center establishments, such as child care centers, homeless shelters and food banks
  • Certain offices and service establishments, such as providers of legal services, hospitals and health care providers
  • Exhibition or entertainment venues, such as theaters and concert halls
  • Establishments that serve food or drinks, such as restaurants, shelters and food kitchens
  • Public gathering places, such as auditoriums and lecture halls
  • Sales establishments, such as clothing stores and grocery stores
  • Public display or collection establishments, such as museums
  • Places of exercise and recreation, such as gyms
  • Private schools, ranging from nursery school through postgraduate school

Some churches, synagogues and other religious organizations are exempt from the ADA.

How can my nonprofit ensure compliance with the ADA?

To comply with the ADA, your nonprofit may be required to provide accommodations for employees, volunteers and clients who have disabilities. Many accommodations are inexpensive or even free. In other cases, tax incentives are available to help cover the cost.

Compliance might include:

  • Developing effective communication strategies. Your nonprofit might need to provide auxiliary aids and services to people who have hearing, sight or speech disabilities. Online activities and information should also be accessible.
  • Ensuring physical access to your facility. Remove physical barriers, maintain access to accessible spaces and make sure new construction meets federal accessibility standards. So-called grandfather provisions (in which old rules continue to apply to existing situations) in local building codes don't exempt a nonprofit from complying with the ADA. Also, make sure that people who have disabilities can use transportation that your organization offers and that they aren't charged for special accommodations.
  • Restructuring an employee's workspace or working hours. An employee in a wheelchair might require a modified desk, while an employee who needs a day off each week for medical treatments might be permitted to work 10 hours a day four days a week rather than 8 hours a day five days a week.
  • Modifying practices and policies to prohibit discrimination. Sometimes minor changes can make regular operations inclusive to people who have disabilities. For example, if your nonprofit sells clothing, you might modify a policy allowing only one person at a time in a changing room to accommodate those who may need help from a companion. Provide staff training for interacting with people who have disabilities. Consider opportunities for people who have disabilities to serve as volunteers or on your nonprofit's board or committees.
  • Involving people who have disabilities in your regular programs. Look for ways to make your regular programming accessible to people who have disabilities. Consider providing special programs for people who have disabilities only if offering equally effective benefits and services would make a separate program necessary.
  • Updating your organization's guiding documents. Work with the board to make sure your organization's mission statement, code of ethics, professional standards and other vital documents reflect a commitment to providing access to services and appropriate accommodations for people who have disabilities.

Ensuring compliance with the ADA is an ongoing process. As you expand your staff and develop new programs or activities, think about how to be inclusive to people who have disabilities. If you have questions about the ADA and what specific steps must be taken to comply, call the ADA information line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY).

This article draws on the expertise of Grace Davies, a Minneapolis-based attorney with special interest in product liability, medical malpractice and employment discrimination.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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