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Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act Are a Help to People with Special Needs, for the Most Part
Recent changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have gone into effect, and, for the most part, the updated rules will make it easier for people with special needs to access public places and services.
The ADA drastically improved wheelchair access in public places, but in the years since the ADA first came into effect in 1991, many people with special needs who may have once been forced to use wheelchairs for transportation have been able to get around through the use of "other power-driven mobility devices" like Segways, modified scooters and golf carts. The new regulations require places of public accommodation to provide access to users of such devices unless doing so would fundamentally alter a business's program or services or if access would create a safety hazard.
The revised ADA regulations also addresses inconveniences that may not be as apparent as lack of physical access. For example, people with physical disabilities have long complained that they do not have equal access to tickets to sporting events, concerts and other gatherings. In particular, tickets for people with physical disabilities are not always offered during special "pre-sale" events and online promotions, and in some cases promoters have forced people with disabilities to purchase tickets via telephone when most other customers can do so directly on the Web. Now, all tickets to public events must be offered to people with disabilities under the same terms enjoyed by people without disabilities.
When the ADA went into effect, it dramatically altered previously accepted building standards by requiring public places to provide access to people with physical disabilities. Since 1991, countless buildings have been retrofitted to accommodate people with disabilities, and most new buildings have been specifically designed to allow access. In response to continued problems with accessibility, the new ADA regulations contain building standards for many additional places of public accommodation that were not included in the 1991 regulations, including amusement rides, swimming pools and shooting ranges.
The new regulations do contain one rule that may pose a problem for some people who use service animals. While the government's prior definition of "service animal" was ambiguous, the new rules specifically state that a "service animal" can only be a dog that is individually trained "to do work or perform tasks" for a person with disabilities. This updated definition would allow businesses to exclude other kinds of animals that assist people with disabilities, and it would even give business owners the right to restrict service dogs who are only being used for comfort, therapy or emotional support.
To read the Department of Justice's primer for small businesses, which describes the new regulations in plain English, click here.