How Social Distancing Policies Affect People With Disabilities
Currently, the most widely accepted research suggests that maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between people not within the same household helps limit COVID-19 transmission. While people should be responsible for keeping their own distance from others, businesses are making alterations to their spaces as well as implementing new practices and procedures to help nudge employees and visitors into more healthful behaviors. As you evaluate how best to keep everyone safe, it is important to consider how these changes might affect people with disabilities.
Since the ADA does not require every feature to be accessible when there are multiples of the same type, it is possible for a business to inadvertently remove a required accessible feature. Some features are more easily identifiable than others, however. For example, the accessible stall in a multi-user bathroom is something almost everyone can identify. In contrast, it might be more difficult to pick out an accessible sink in a row of sinks. Please refer to the Appendix: How to Identify Accessible Features to learn more about the most common accessible features of a business, such as accessible routes, accessible tables, door maneuvering clearances, and accessible sinks.
- Identify the accessible features of your business and make them available during all business hours. While this may appear to be common sense, the number one concern of people with disabilities who responded to our survey was that accessible building features, such as accessible parking, entrances, and service counters were taken out of service while inaccessible features remained available.
- As outdoor seating has become increasingly popular, some businesses have expanded their seating into required accessible areas that cannot be obstructed. For example, some businesses are unlawfully converting their accessible parking to temporary patio seating. Also, in an effort to increase the distance between tables, some new layouts have prevented people with disabilities from being able to navigate public sidewalks. When organizing your outdoor seating, do not remove accessible parking spaces or their access aisles from their intended use, and ensure that there is a 3-foot-wide clear pathway around your seating area.
- When implementing measures to increase distance between customers and employees, ensure those areas remain accessible. For example, some businesses are placing unused furniture, such as tables, in front of sales or service counters. While this forces greater distance during an interaction, it may also prevent someone using a wheelchair from having access to those services if the approach narrows to less than 3 feet wide or prevents access to point of sale devices for people with limited reach.
- Controlling the direction of pedestrians travel throughout a business can limit the potential for people to cross paths. However, it also can create inefficiencies and unnecessary steps for people who have difficulty walking long distances. If you require people to enter using one door and leave from another, make sure they are both accessible and connect to accessible parking, bus stops, and public sidewalks. If not all entrances and exits are accessible, then people with disabilities may find themselves in spaces that are not usable, which will require them to backtrack against the traffic pattern you have established. Update policies to allow for voluntary compliance, and remain flexible if someone cannot comply because of their accessibility needs.
How Limited Capacity Policies Affect People With Disabilities
In order to limit exposure and prevent COVID-19 transmission, most jurisdictions have implemented restrictions on how many people can congregate inside at one time. While limited capacities are based on reduced percentages of existing occupancy standards, some businesses have expanded that mandate to include offering dedicated shopping hours to restricted populations (seniors and people with disabilities), limiting how many people from a single family can shop together, and providing pick-up only zones in the parking lot or at the curb to reduce the need to enter a store.
- When limiting capacity results in a long line outside, provide alternatives. For example, for people who are unable to stand for long periods of time, allow them to call ahead to make an appointment or place them in a virtual queue and text them when they can enter.
- Some people need assistance while shopping, however they may not want an employee to help. Allow people with disabilities to determine who can best assist them even if it requires more than one person from each household in your business.
- To shorten the distance employees must travel to serve customers in their cars, some businesses are converting accessible parking spaces and their access aisles to pick-up zones due to their proximity to the front entrance. This practice violates the ADA’s requirement to maintain accessible features. Relocate the pick-up areas to inaccessible parking spaces.
How Increased Sanitation Policies Affect People With Disabilities
In addition to encouraging increased physical distance and limiting capacity within enclosed spaces, it is also a common practice for businesses to disinfect their properties, furnishings, and equipment more frequently with specific COVID-19 approved cleaning agents. However, not all cleaning agents are nonhazardous for people with disabilities.
- Use safer cleaning agents such as fragrance-free soap and water whenever possible (See EPA Safer Choice 3). If disinfectants are deemed necessary, use less harmful, less toxic fragrance-free products such as hydrogen peroxide or isopropanol alcohol. Avoid more toxic disinfectants such as quaternary ammonium compounds, sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach), or phenolic compounds such as Lysol. These products are hazardous and cause debilitating reactions for people disabled by chemical exposures.
- If providing public access to hand sanitizer or hand wipes, ensure that their ingredients are prominently displayed so people can make informed decisions about their personal usage. Also, provide them at a height that is easily reachable (4 feet or lower) and along an accessible route. Ideally, they should be located before and after high touch areas like door handles, handrails, and checkout or service counters.
- Include specific disability-related high touch features of a space as part of your sanitation routine, such as braille and tactile signage, handrails on ramps or grab bars in bathrooms, and the keypads of a touchscreen ATM or vending machine.
- While it is common practice for individuals to open bathroom doors with paper towels after washing their hands, it is important that trashcans are not placed within the required door maneuvering clearance (18 inches beyond the latch-side of the door).
- Due to COVID-19, there is a renewed interest in promoting handsfree alternatives for common tasks like dispensing soap, using faucets, and operating doors to reduce the amount of high touch areas in a space. When evaluating these substitutes, avoid selecting options that are only foot-operated as they do not meet the requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
How Mask Policies Affect People With Disabilities
Depending on where you are located, face masks may be required, encouraged, or simply left to the individual business to determine its own policy. The compulsory use of masks remains controversial, and while some
people may want to fraudulently take advantage of the ADA’s broad protections, there are certain disabilities that preclude the use of face masks. For example, the CDC recommends that “masks should not be worn by children under the age of two, or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance (4). The Southeast ADA Center, in partnership with the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, expands that list to include people with:
- Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or other respiratory disabilities
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, or claustrophobia
- Autism or those who are sensitive to touch and texture
- Mouth control devices such as sip and puff controls or assistive ventilators (5)
Because it may be difficult to discern whether someone has a bona fide need to avoid using a mask, it is important to develop policies that acknowledge the existence of invisible or non-obvious disabilities and describe how employees should respond to a customer’s refusal to wear a mask (6).
- Should someone be unable to wear a mask, discuss options that allow for the person to continue working or receiving services without wearing one. Some options include: wearing a face shield, offering contactless curbside pickup or delivery, providing services remotely, or allowing someone else to act on their behalf.
Another disability-related concern regarding masks is how they might affect people who are d/Deaf and/or hard of hearing, who compromise roughly 15% of the American population aged 18 and older, or 37.5 million adults (8) . While having trouble hearing may not prevent someone from wearing a mask themselves, they will likely interfere with communication for those who rely on lip reading, have soft speech, or have difficulty hearing voices that are muffled by their usage.
- If it is not possible for an employee to safely lower their mask when interacting with a person who is having difficulty communicating, train staff to use alternative means of communication to support visitors with hearing disabilities. This might include something as simple as exchanging notes – but remember, do not share your pen.
How to Provide Effective Communication
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses to communicate with people with disabilities in a way that is as effective for them as it is for others without disabilities. People who have difficulty seeing, hearing, speaking, comprehending, or reading may not be able to understand the rapidly evolving COVID-related chang es undertaken by a business if information is provided only one way. In order to communicate with as many people as possible, it is best for businesses to provide critical information in as many formats as possible.
The American Council of the Blind recommends printed documents should exhibit the following characteristics in order to be usable by the low vision community (9):
- Minimum 18 point font (preferably 20 point)
- Line spacing of at least 1.5
- Sans serif fonts such as Verdana, Helvetica, Tahoma, and Arial
All COVID-19 related information should be posted on a business’ website and social media accounts. If you have concerns about your digital accessibility or would like confirmation that your content is accessible to people with disabilities, visit www.digital.gov, a program of the U.S. General Services Administration.
If possible, provide routine audible announcements regarding COVID-19 policies and be prepared to read signs to people who ask for assistance.
Businesses should also provide a contact number for anyone needing to discuss the COVID-related policies and practices in greater detail.