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The Michigan Department of Civil Rights on Thursday outlined legal requirements and resources at a webinar for Michigan businesses and organizations looking to ensure their services are accessible to people with disabilities.
The conference, held Thursday morning, was part of the department’s MI Response to Hate Campaign, which holds monthly online forums focused on hate crimes and bias awareness. The event focused on state and federal accessibility requirements, rules related to service animals and best practices for digital accessibility.
“It’s important that we talk about these things because one in four individuals in our country report being a person with a disability. Mobility and cognitive impairments are the most common. And over 43% of adults, age 65 or older, are persons with disabilities,” said Tyra Khan, director of the Department of Civil Rights’ Disability Rights and Compliance Division.
“Any one of us at any time in our lives can become a person with a disability, so it’s important that we understand our rights as well as obligations as business owners,” Khan said.
At the beginning of the web conference Khan outlined requirements in Title Three of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers public accommodations, meaning businesses that are open to the public. Under the law, businesses cannot deny a person with a disability full and equal enjoyment of their goods, services, facilities or any privileges or advantages of that business because of their disability or because they may need accommodations or an adaptive device to use a business’s services.
“In a nutshell, the ADA says that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as those without and it includes protections against retaliation,” Khan said.
Businesses may have to provide accommodations or modifications to the ways they normally conduct business, Khan said. They may also have to provide auxiliary services like captioning or having a sign language interpreter present to ensure effective communication in order to allow people with hearing or speech disabilities to participate.
The ADA also ensures program access, which can apply to web-based programs and architecture in new buildings and modifying old buildings, as well as the relocation of services if a venue is inaccessible.
Michigan also has its own state law which requires a business owner to accommodate a person with a disability unless doing so would result in an undue burden and prohibits retaliation against an individual for exercising their rights under state and federal law, Khan said.
What to expect with service animals
Alongside the standards for disability accessibility, the department also reviewed ADA requirements for service animals in businesses.
Service animals are defined as a dog or miniature horse trained in work or tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability, said Anthony Ianni, an ADA analyst for the Department of Civil Rights.
Miniature horses live longer than dogs, receive more extensive service animal training, are more allergen friendly and are the ideal size for mobility assistance, Ianni explained. They are often less social and less distractible than dogs and provide a service animal option for people whose religious beliefs don’t allow them to interact with dogs.
Businesses that are open to the public have to allow service animals into places of public accommodation, Khan said. Under a new state law passed in 2022, this also includes service animals in training so people with disabilities have the right to train their own service animals, Khan said.
Under this law, service animals in training can be admitted into a business if they are accompanied by their trainer or an animal raiser for the purpose of training that animal to perform a service task or for behavioral socialization, Khan said.
This law is enforced by local law enforcement agencies rather than the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
While service animals can perform tasks like assisting people with vision impairments, alerting people who are deaf or hard of hearing to noises, retrieving items like medication, alert people to oncoming seizures and providing balance stability, service animal tasks do not include providing emotional comfort or support, general companionship, violence protection work or crime deterrence, Khan said.
The ADA distinguishes between psychiatric service animals trained to perform certain tasks and emotional support animals without disability task related training, Khan said, noting that emotional support animals are not covered by the ADA.
It's important that we talk about these things because one in four individuals in our country report being a person with a disability.
– Tyra Khan, director of Michigan Department of Civil Rights' Disability Rights and Compliance Division
When assessing whether someone is entering a business with a service animal, there are only two questions a business can ask, Khan said: “Is this a service animal that’s required because of your disability?” and “what work or task has this animal been trained to perform?” People with disabilities do not have to disclose their disabilities, and businesses cannot ask the handler to have their service animal perform its trained task.
Service animals can only be excluded from a business under certain circumstances. If a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take immediate action to bring it under control, it can be removed from the business, Khan said. However, the individual with a disability should be allowed to remain in the business and receive goods or services without the presence of the animal.
Service animals can be excluded if their presence would fundamentally alter the nature of a program service or activity, or if an undue financial or administrative burden would occur by having the animal there. One example is that the animal may be excluded from an operating room or a burn unit because it would not be sterile to allow an animal into those areas, Khan said.
“The ADA service animal rules don’t override legitimate health and safety concerns,” Khan said.
Service animals must also meet specific behavioral requirements. They must be housebroken and they must be kept under their handler’s control at all times, meaning the animal must be tethered or leashed at all times unless a person’s disability doesn’t allow them to hold a leash harness or tether, or if a leash, harness or tether would interfere with the worker task that the animal performs.
People with service animals also cannot be seated in different rooms or tables because they have a service animal. They should not be charged extra fees or deposits because of their animal unless individuals without an animal are charged those fees, Khan said. Businesses can charge people if their animal causes damage, but only they would charge people without animals for damage they cause.
Khan also noted that it is a misdemeanor to harass or assault a service animal.
In addition to breaking down guidelines for service animals in a business, the department hosted another presentation on ways businesses can make their websites and online services more accessible to people who may be using assistive technology.
“Really a goal that you should have with digital accessibility is that, you know, your application can be broadly used by people with and without disabilities, but also that can work with assistive technology like screen magnifiers, like screen reading technologies,” said Phil Deaton, a digital information accessibility coordinator at the University of Michigan.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that your website or digital application works for your consumer or your constituency, and you really want to make sure that people can complete tasks, buy your products, utilize your digital services,” Deaton said.
Deaton offered tips on how to improve site accessibility through design like captioning video content, making sure text has a strong contrast against a website background to improve readability, using headings and properly labeling links. He also pointed out common issues, such as website links and fields on forms not being properly labeled, and not identifying errors in forms, which can create issues for people using a screen reader.
Deaton encouraged businesses with a website to follow international web content accessibility guidelines when developing or commissioning a developer to create their website. He also pointed to resources like accessible website templates on platforms like Wix and WordPress.
“Federal agencies have long asserted rights for people with disabilities under the ADA apply to programs, services and activities that are supported by technology,” Deaton said.
“This isn’t just for folks that sell web development services or create software. This is also for folks that are using technology to run their businesses to interact with their customers and to provide programs, services and activities,” he said.
When addressing digital accessibility, Deaton advocated for a response that is both proactive and reactive, incorporating best practices from web content accessibility guidelines and responding to customer feedback on accessibility.
“If we’re focusing in again, on that compliance piece, we’re going to be missing opportunities to really communicate how we are prioritizing customers with disabilities, constituents with disabilities in our business.
‘We can all find ourselves there someday’
After their presentation, the panelists discussed benefits of accessibility in business, as well as examples of accessibility concerns and violations of the ADA.
Khan cited businesses denying people with mobility aids access to facilities because they mistakenly believe those aids will cause damage, refusing to serve customers who have filed ADA complaints against them, and turning off elevators at certain times of the day to save money on energy as examples of discrimination she has seen firsthand working with the Department of Civil Rights.
Khan also addressed ongoing compliance concerns with businesses and essential services not accommodating people with chemical and scent sensitivities as an area where legislative action may be needed.
While violations of the ADA can come with potential legal consequences, Khan noted these issues can lead to a loss of goodwill among people with disabilities as well as a loss of business.
“If you’re limiting your class of customers, your pool of customers, you’re really hurting yourself because people with disabilities — just like everybody else — they buy things, they engage in commerce. That’s the whole purpose of the ADA right is to make sure that everyone has equitable access to these things,” Khan said.
“This is the one protected class, right, that any of us can become a member of at any time in our life. So we all know somebody who’s a person with a disability, whether it’s ourselves, a friend, family member, co-worker, and it’s just the right thing to do because we can all find ourselves there someday.”
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