Small Businesses & the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law more than 22 years ago. Yet, many small business owners still don’t understand the ADA and what it covers.

The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government programs, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications.  

So what does this mean for small businesses? There are two areas of the law that primary affect small businesses – Title I, which includes protections for employees and jobseekers with disabilities, and Title III, which prohibits discrimination against customers with disabilities by private businesses, commercial facilities and other “public accommodations.” 

What Does “Disability” Mean?

First, let’s cover how the ADA recognizes an “individual with a disability.” Under the ADA, the term "disability," with respect to an individual, means:

(A) A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;

(B) A record of such an impairment; or

(C) Being regarded as having such an impairment.

The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 simplified the process of determining who has a disability, therefore making it easier for people to establish that they are protected under the ADA. To learn more, read the Job Accommodation Network’s (JAN) factsheet on the ADA Amendments Act.

Customers with Disabilities

As previously stated, Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against any individual with a disability by a private business of any size, as well as commercial facilities, that provide goods or services to the public (also known as public accommodations), such as movie theaters, hotels, grocery stores and sports arenas. It also applies to private entities offering certain types of exams or courses. Only private clubs and religious organizations are exempt from complying with Title III. 

For more information and specific examples of the types of provisions covered under Title III, read the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) "Americans with Disabilities Act ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual Covering Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities."

Employees with Disabilities

In addition to requiring businesses to accommodate customers with disabilities, the ADA also protects the rights of employees or job seekers with disabilities. Title I of the ADA states that employers with 15 or more employees must provide “reasonable accommodations" for individuals with disabilities who work for their company, unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

  • A reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment or in the way a job is performed that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities."

  • Undue hardship relates to the resources and circumstances of the employer in terms of the cost or difficulty of providing the accommodation.  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, undue hardship refers not only to the financial burden on a business, but also to accommodations that may be “extensive, substantial or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.
The cost of these accommodations is significantly lower than most employers expect. According to an annual report by JAN called, "Low Cost, High Impact,” more than half of the businesses surveyed (57 percent) reported that the accommodations they provided to employees with disabilities cost them nothing to make. Of the accommodations that did have a cost, the typical one-time expenditure was only $500.

For more information on providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, read JAN’s 
Employers' Practical Guide to Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA or call their toll-free hotline at 1-800-526-7234 (1-877-781-9403 TTY).

Additional Resources

  •, a website managed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), offers a great deal of information for small businesses, including:
    • The ADA Primer for Small Businesses; 
    • A fact sheet that answers commonly asked questions about service animals in places of business;
    • Information on tax credits and deductions to help offset costs associated with new construction or alterations to existing facilities; and
    • A toll-free ADA Information Line: 1-800-514-0301 (1-800-514-0383 TTY).


About the Author

Diana Zeitzer

Diana Zeitzer is the Communications Director for, the U.S. federal government’s website for comprehensive information on disability programs and services in communities nationwide. She has worked on the initiative since 2004 through a contract between’s managing partner, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), and Concepts Inc., a woman-owned small business located in Bethesda, MD.

comments powered by Disqus