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Business Costs & Regulation

Firms Face Tough Rules on Access for Disabled

The rule includes a definition of a “service animal” – rabbits and snakes need not apply.

Sweeping new rules calling for expanded access for the disabled are coming from the U.S. Department of Justice. They will apply to new or renovated facilities that are open to the public, including retail stores, hotels, amusement parks, sports stadiums, golf courses, theaters, fishing piers, parking garages, playgrounds, gyms and courtrooms. The guidelines include lower light switches, wider doorways, modified service counters, ramps to auditoriums and more. They’ll also require modifications in employee work areas to improve mobility.

But Uncle Sam is giving businesses extra time to comply -- 18 months after the rule is issued, which is expected any day now. Initially, regulators proposed a six-month compliance window for the many companies that’ll be affected. Sluggish economic conditions may have played a role in regulators giving affected parties the extra time to comply.

The rules nail down the definition of a service animal trained to assist the disabled. The definition applies only to dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses. Not making the cut: monkeys, rabbits, reptiles and other animals that people have insisted on bringing into the facilities. This definition will give firms the ammunition to push back against people’s claims that their animal is a service animal. “It’s amazing what people will try. I’ve even heard about tarantulas and snakes. Businesses have been afraid to say no because of potential liability,” says Teresa Jakubowski, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Washington.

Public accommodations will not be allowed to require persons with disabilities to pay a surcharge for service animals, even if others without disabilities are required to pay for their pets.


Segways, golf carts and other power-driven mobility devices will not be treated the same as wheelchairs. While wheelchairs must be permitted in all areas open to the public, other mobility devices are allowed only if they can be operated without creating a safety hazard or disrupting the business.

The rules implement recommendations by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, an independent federal agency, and update the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed Congress in 1990.