Under federal and state law, it is illegal to discriminate against any person with an actual or perceived disability in many contexts of everyday life, including, for example, in public accommodations, housing, employment, voting and education. A disability is defined as a past or present physical or mental impairment that substantially limits or has limited one or more major life activities.
Prohibited disability discrimination includes not only intentional prejudice based on disability, but also actions or inactions that operate to deny people with disabilities equal access to the same services, opportunities and benefits that are available to people without disabilities. For example, a business discriminates against people with certain physical disabilities if its entry doors are too heavy to easily be pushed open, and a housing complex discriminates against people who use a wheelchair when it does not provide wheelchair-accessible units.
Below are some examples of the specific laws prohibiting disability discrimination. If you believe that you have been discriminated against based on disability, please contact the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office at (212) 416-8250 or Civil.Rights@ag.ny.gov.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 with the goal of providing people with disabilities with equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. Under the ADA’s “Public Accommodations” provision, any business that provides goods or services to the public (i.e., businesses to which the general public is normally or customarily invited or permitted) is considered a public accommodation, and is required to construct or adjust its physical space, as well as its policies and procedures, to make sure that people with physical and sensory disabilities have the same access to its facilities and services as people without disabilities. Examples of public accommodations subject to the ADA include:
- Restaurants and hotels
- Retail stores and establishments
- Theaters, concert halls and sports facilities
- All modes of private and public transportation, including taxicabs and buses
- Hospitals and health centers
- Polling places
- Court houses or other government buildings where public services are provided
The New York State Human Rights Law and local laws, such as the New York City Human Rights Law, likewise prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in the provision of public accommodations.
The ADA and New York’s state and local laws require businesses providing a public accommodation to make reasonable modifications to their policies and procedures when necessary to afford equal access to individuals with disabilities. Examples of reasonable modifications include: making an employee available to help a disabled customer to access merchandise that is out of reach; using a TTY machine or other aid to effectively communicate with hearing impaired customers; or allowing a service animal into a restaurant as an exception to a “no animals” policy. However, businesses are not required to fundamentally alter the manner in which they conduct business to accommodate a person with a disability. For example, a clothing store would not be required to help customers with disabilities to try on clothes if did not provide the same service for customers without disabilities.
Communication with Consumers
Under the ADA, businesses providing a public accommodation are required to ensure that their staff can effectively communicate with people with disabilities, including people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually-impaired, or who have speech limitations.
Businesses can satisfy the ADA’s communications requirement in a variety of ways depending on the type of business and services it provides and on the complexity, nature and length of the communication. A bookstore may require salesclerks to communicate with deaf customers by exchanging written notes. A cafe may require waiters to read the menu to blind diners. However, a patient visiting a doctor to discuss serious medical treatment may require a sign language interpreter because of the complexity and significance of the subject matter being communicated. However, a business is not required to provide a service that would create an undue burden on that business, or that would pose a significant difficulty or expense to the business.
A service animal is a working animal, not a pet. The ADA defines a service animal as any dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric or other mental disability. Dogs that satisfy this definition are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government, or any other entity.
Under the ADA and New York law, businesses or agencies that serve the public (i.e., public accommodations) must permit a service animal to accompany an individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it may be illegal to exclude a service animal from areas such as waiting areas, clinics, cafeterias or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or other units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.
Providers of public accommodations cannot exclude service animals because of their “no pets” policy but may exclude a service animal if, for instance, the animal is not effectively controlled by its owner or is not housebroken. A service animal is considered under control if it is harnessed, leashed or tethered, and/or responsive to its owner’s commands such that the owner is able to maintain control of the animal through voice, signal or other effective controls. Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.
The “Built” Environment
Configurations of physical space can create barriers for people living with disabilities. For instance, a narrow hallway, high counter, or heavy door could each prevent a person with physical disabilities from accessing the same goods, services, or entertainment available to people without disabilities. The ADA thus requires that providers of public accommodations reasonably modify their physical space to provide access to all.
Different standards of modification apply depending on when the building or facility in question was built. Any public accommodation facility built prior to 1993 must make reasonable modifications to make its space more accessible. A modification is reasonable when it does not force the provider of a public accommodation to suffer an undue burden in terms of either cost or difficulty. For example, a mom-and-pop restaurant that could not afford to install an entrance/exit ramp or remove the steps to its entrance could provide take-out service as a way of accommodating people who use a wheelchair.
Any public accommodation facility altered or built after 1993 must meet certain standards established in 1991 (1991 Standards). These standards include, for example:
- Any building with more than three stories and more than 3,000 square feet must include an elevator.
- Half of all public entrances must be accessible.
- Any enclosed parking, pedestrian tunnels and elevated walkways must include accessible entrances.
- All public and common use bathrooms must contain at least one accessible stall, and two if there are six or more stalls.
Any public accommodation facility that was permitted to begin or actually began construction after March 15, 2012 must comply with updated 2010 Standards. Required modifications under the 2010 Standards include, for example:
- Entrances must not have a step, or if the step cannot be removed, another accessible entrance must be created.
- Any physical barriers in or to walkways, hallways, bathrooms, counters, doorways and more must be modified to provide access.
- At least one checkout aisle must be accessible to people with mobility disabilities.
- In a restaurant, the space around tables, counters, and condiment and beverage bars must be wide enough for a wheelchair.
- A public accommodation provider that provides parking must, for every six parking spaces, also provide at least one disability-accessible space, or one space with enough adjacent room to allow for someone with a wheelchair or other mobility device to get in and out of the parked vehicle.
If a public accommodation facility is in compliance with the 1991 Standards, it does not have to be further modified to comply with the 2010 standards. However, if an element of a public accommodation facility that had complied with the 1991 Standards is altered, then the alteration must comply with the 2010 Standards. For example, if a bank moves the location of an ATM machine, that is considered an alteration and the ATM must now meet the 2010 keypad standards for use by persons with disabilities.
The ADA also requires every public accommodation to remove barriers from existing structures and sites to make access “readily achievable” under the 1991 or 2010 Standards. “Readily achievable” means without significant difficulty or expense. Barrier removal may include adding Braille labels to elevator signal buttons or installing a small ramp to cover a few steps. If the public accommodation provider removes any barrier from its structure or site after March 15, 2012, the removal must also follow the 2010 Standards.
By March 15, 2012, all public accommodation providers were required to remove any architectural barriers to newly covered elements in existing facilities including, without limitation, exercise machines and equipment, pay areas, and amusement park rides.
In New York State, all housing is subject to one or more of the laws described below that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities except for: housing rentals in one or two family owner-occupied buildings, room rentals in housing for individuals of the same-sex, and room rentals in owner-occupied housing.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to all housing (except for the exceptions noted in the paragraph above), as well as to rental offices, sales offices in model homes, and homes associated with day care operations.
Moreover, the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law all bar discrimination against tenants and homeowners based on their disability. Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act also bars any public or private housing entity that receives federal funds from discriminating based on disability. Discrimination includes, for example, the denial of the sale or rental of housing, as well as different treatment in the terms, conditions or privileges of a sale or rental. Housing may be denied to a person, however, if that person would actually present a direct threat to the health and safety of other people or cause substantial damage to their property.
A landlord must also reasonably accommodate a person with a disability by adjusting or changing that person’s dwelling and/or the building’s common area. A landlord must also change policies or services as needed to accommodate a person with a disability. For example, if an apartment building has a “no pets” rule, the rule must be waived for a person who has a visual impairment and requires a service dog.
The FHA also includes design and construction requirements for certain types of buildings to insure access for people with disabilities. For example, any private or public building with four or more dwelling units and an elevator, constructed for first-time use after March 13, 1991, must have: an accessible entrance/exit route; accessible and usable public and common areas; usable doors; accessible routes into and through units of the building; placement of light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other controls at certain heights so as to be reachable by a person in a wheelchair; reinforced walls in bathrooms to allow for installation of grab bars; and usable kitchens and bathrooms. These requirements also apply to any new additions of four or more units on any building originally built before March 13, 1991. If housing was built before 1991, landlords must allow residents with disabilities who wish to renovate or change their units to do so. However, residents must pay for any modifications and may also be required to pay for removing the modifications and restoring the unit to its original state, if the building owner requests it.
Relatedly, Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act requires that any new housing construction for sale or rental that is funded in any part by federal money include a certain percentage of units that are fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Five percent of all units must be accessible to people with mobility disabilities, and at least two percent must be accessible for people with sensory disabilities. Unlike the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 requires that any renovations or alterations to a housing facility be made accessible. However, a renovation that costs 75 percent or more of the cost of replacing the facility is considered a “substantial alteration.” In this case, the higher standard for new construction applies to the entire facility, requiring that a certain percentage of units be fully accessible.
In New York, federal, state, and local laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate against a qualified employee or job applicant based on disability in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. For more information, visit Employment Discrimination Laws at http://www.ag.ny.gov/civil-rights/employment-discrimination-laws. Information on how the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects against employment discrimination can specifically be found at http://www.ag.ny.gov/civil-rights/examples-of-federal-laws#3.
Under federal and state law, persons with disabilities are entitled to assistance with voter registration, accessible polling sites, and assistance with casting their ballot. For more information, visit Voting Rights at http://www.ag.ny.gov/civil-rights/voting-rights, and scroll down to “Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities.”
Students in New York schools are protected by federal, state, and local laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of disability. For information on some of these laws, visit Equal Educational Opportunity at http://www.ag.ny.gov/civil-rights/equal-educational-opportunity.