Where the Americans with Disabilities Act Falls Short

The ADA is a marvelous legislative tool. I have, however, noticed a disturbing tendency to rely on it as a blanket solution, or worse, a legal bludgeon. Here’s the thing. In practice, its compliance rests on three conditions:

1) the needed accommodations fall within the definition of “reasonable”
2) the owners are aware of the requirements
3) the owners are willing to comply

Now, larger businesses usually have the money and the sense to ensure that they’re accessible. Smaller businesses, especially those in older buildings… well, it depends.

Take those smoke alarms with flashing strobe lights, for example. A small-to-medium hotel may get a grand total of 1-2 deaf guests a year, if that. Legally, new hotels or hotels undergoing renovation are required to purchase and install strobe lights in a portion of their units, and ideally, they’d do so posthaste because, yannow, preventable death by immolation tends to puts a damper on business and common decency.

But. What if it’s a tiny bed-and-breakfast? What if the accessible rooms are full? Or the hotel is in an older building and hasn’t gotten around to updating the alarms? Or the hotel is newer, but for whatever reason, they aren’t ADA-compliant?

You could always file a Title III complaint. First, though, you’ve gotta collect proof of the discrimination (photos, written documentation, etc.), write a letter, and mail it to the US Department of Justice, where it will be filed along with, I don’t know, 10,000 or however many other cases they’re handling on that given day.

Or, better yet, you can have a sit-down with the owners and tell them, “Hey, just so you know, to make your rooms accessible to anyone with hearing loss– especially older tenants– and ensure their safety, you can swap out your smoke detectors with these alarms and write it off as a business expense. Plus, you’ll be in the clear legally. If finances or labor are a concern, you can start with the legal minimum required and swap out as you replace older alarms.”

However, neither option resolves your immediate problem when the hotel isn’t already ADA-compliant. Let’s say you’ve been driving for eight hours straight, you are in the middle of nowhere, you need a place to crash, and this hotel is the least seediest place in town. Not exactly a plethora of options there, unless there’s an appropriate alarm immediately available and they’re able and willing to install it right away.

Apartments are a bit more clear-cut, but again, that relies on 1) the owners’ and builders’ awareness of ADA requirements and 2) the owners’ and management’s willingness  to accommodate you, rather than give you a difficult time over the “reasonable” stipulation. (It also depends on whether you rent from an individual owner vs an apartment complex.) If and when the apartment does install flashing smoke alarms, you won’t be able to take it with you when you move. So, you’ll have to repeat the process all over again with the next place.

Instead of relying on others’ foresight and goodwill in being ADA-compliant, why not focus our energies on finding solutions that allow for accessibility on our own terms? I reference the flashing smoke alarm because it’s a perfect example for how that gap between ADA mandate and reality can be closed. Modern technology allows us to create portable smoke alarms that we can take with us when we move to a new place, visit a friend’s house, or travel. In fact, Gentex  and BRK both have their own lines of flashing smoke alarms that are portable. Although the ones I’ve looked at seem to be a bit cumbersome (and friends’ feedback confirm this), it’s a start.

This applies to captioning and interpreters as well. I’ve been looking and looking for a reliable transcription app, because straight up, finding a qualified interpreter or captionist– especially for nonprofits, churches, or volunteer events– is a royal pain in the ass. Typically, these organizations don’t have the funds to pay professional rates, and often, things come up last-minute.

While automatic speech recognition software right now isn’t perfect (often not even intelligible), a decent transcription program packaged as a phone app would make spoken presentations much more readily accessible when an interpreter can’t be secured due to funds or time. I can only dream of the day when automated speech transcription software will hit a point that it’s virtually error-free– in fact, I’ve noticed significant improvement on YouTube over the years.

The ability to create devices that can provide access, that we can use wherever and whenever we need it– that, to me, is true accessibility. Not going through a lengthy explanation with just about every vendor on what the ADA requires and hoping they don’t find some excuse to wiggle out of it, trying to determine who’s going to pay for it, or weighing if it’s worth the hassle.