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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) & Restaurants

Overview of Requirements for Existing Structures
Removal of Barriers
Alternatives to Barrier Removal
Alterations to Existing Buildings
Important Elements to Consider
Individuals With Disabilities
Goods & Services
Auxiliary Aids
ADA Enforcement


The ADA became effective on January 26, 1992. The ADA is not a building code as some might think. The ADA is a Civil Rights Act, overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Following is a portion of ADA's "Title III", which attempts to integrate people with disabilities into places of public accommodation and commercial facilities intended for the general public. Integration is made possible through the removal of barriers in existing buildings.

When the ADA addresses "public accommodations", it includes restaurants, hotels, theaters, convention centers, retail stores, shopping centers, dry cleaners, laundromats, pharmacies, doctors' offices, hospitals, museums, libraries, parks, zoos, amusement parks, private schools, day care centers, health spas, and bowling alleys.

"Commercial facilities" are nonresidential facilities, which includes office buildings, factories, and warehouses.

This page is intended to be informational only as it pertains to ADA physical architectural barriers and existing structures. This is not a complete document covering all of ADA "Title III" and does not represent itself as such. For further information, contact the U.S. Department of Justice (Civil Rights Division).

I. Overview of Requirements for Existing Structures

The ADA seeks the removal of architectural and structural barriers in existing facilities where readily achievable.
If removal of barriers is not readily achievable, the ADA seeks alternative measures to provide goods and services to disabled persons.
It is the intent of the ADA to provide equal goods and services to disabled persons in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.
Furnish auxiliary aids when necessary to ensure effective communication, unless an undue burden or fundamental alteration would result.


II. Existing Facilities: Removal of Barriers

Physical barriers to entering and using existing facilities must be removed when "readily achievable." Readily achievable means "easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense."

What is readily achievable will be determined on a case-by-case basis in light of the resources available. The regulation does not require the rearrangement of temporary or movable structures, such as furniture, equipment, and display racks to the extent that it would result in a significant loss of selling or serving space.

Legitimate safety requirements may be considered in determining what is readily achievable so long as they are based on actual risks and are necessary for safe operation.

Examples of barrier removal measures include

  • Installing ramps
  • Making curb cuts at sidewalks and entrances
  • Rearranging tables, chairs, vending machines, display racks, and other furniture
  • Widening doorways
  • Installing grab bars in toilet stalls
  • Adding raised letters or Braille to elevator control buttons.

First priority should be given to measures that will enable individuals with disabilities to "get in the front door," followed by measures to provide access to areas providing goods and services.

Barrier removal measures must comply, when readily achievable, with the alterations requirements of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines. If compliance with the Guidelines is not readily achievable, other safe, readily achievable measures must be taken, such as installation of a slightly narrower door than would be required by the Guidelines.

III. Existing Facilities: Alternatives to Barrier Removal

The ADA requires the removal of physical barriers, such as stairs, if it is "readily achievable." However, if removal is not readily achievable, alternative steps must be taken to make goods and services accessible. Examples of alternative measures include providing goods and services at the door, sidewalk, or curb, providing home delivery, retrieving merchandise from inaccessible shelves or racks, relocating activities to accessible locations.


IV. Alterations to Existing Buildings

After January 26, l992, alterations to existing places of public accommodation and commercial facilities must be accessible to the maximum extent feasible. An alteration is a change that affects usability of a facility. For example, if during remodeling, renovation, or restoration, a doorway is being relocated, the new doorway must be wide enough to meet the requirements of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines.

When alterations are made to a "primary function area," such as the lobby or work areas of a bank, an accessible path of travel to the altered area, and the bathrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains serving that area, must be made accessible to the extent that the accessibility costs are not disproportionate to the overall cost of the original alteration.

Alterations to windows, hardware, controls, electrical outlets, and signage in primary function areas do not trigger the path of travel requirement.

 The added accessibility costs are disproportionate if they exceed 20 percent of the original alteration.

Elevators are not required in facilities under three stories or with fewer than 3,000 square feet per floor, unless the building is a shopping center, shopping mall, professional office of a health care provider, or station used for public transportation.


V. Elements to Consider When Altering an Existing Restaurant

All elements pertaining to routes and paths to and from entrance and throughout building should strive for accessibility. Areas would include

  • Parking spaces
  • Passenger loading zones
  • Ramps
  • Stairs
  • Elevators
  • Doors
  • Entrances
  • Drinking fountains
  • Bathrooms
  • Controls and operating mechanisms
  • Storage areas
  • Alarms
  • Signage
  • Telephones
  • Fixed seating
  • Tables and counters


VI. Individuals with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides comprehensive civil rights protection for "individuals with disabilities." An individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," or has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Examples of physical or mental impairments include, but are not limited to, such contagious and non contagious diseases and conditions as orthopedic, visual, speech, and hearing impairments; cerebral palsy, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental retardation, emotional illness, specific leaning disabilities, HIV disease (whether symptomatic or asymptomatic), tuberculosis, drug addiction, and alcoholism. Homosexuality and bisexuality are not physical or mental impairments under the ADA.

"Major life activities" include functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

Individuals who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs are not protected by the ADA when an action is taken on the basis of their current illegal use of drugs.


VII. Eligibility for Goods and Services

In providing goods and services, a public accommodation may not use eligibility requirements that exclude or segregate individuals with disabilities, unless the requirements are "necessary" for the operation of the public accommodation.

Safety requirements may be imposed only if they are necessary for the safe operation of a place of public accommodation. They must be based on actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.

Modifications in Policies, Practices, and Procedures

A public accommodation must make reasonable modifications in its policies, practices, and procedures in order to accommodate individuals with disabilities. A modification is not required if it would "fundamentally alter" the goods, services, or operations of the public accommodation. Modifications in existing practices generally must be made to permit the use of guide dogs and other service animals.


VIII. Auxiliary Aids

A public accommodation must provide auxiliary aids and services when they are necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with hearing, vision, or speech impairments.

"Auxiliary aids" include such services or devices as qualified interpreters, assisstive listening headsets, television captioning and decoders, telecommunications devices for deaf persons (TDD's), video text displays, readers, taped texts, brailled materials, and large print materials.

Auxiliary aids that would result in an undue burden, (i.e., "significant difficulty or expense") or in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the goods or services are not required by the regulation. However, a public accommodation must still furnish another auxiliary aid, if available, that does not result in a fundamental alteration or an undue burden.


IX. Enforcement of the ADA and its Regulations

Private parties may bring lawsuits to obtain court orders to stop discrimination. No monetary damages will be available in such suits. A reasonable attorney's fee, however, may be awarded.

Individuals may also file complaints with the Attorney General who is authorized to bring lawsuits in cases of general public importance or where a "pattern or practice" of discrimination is alleged.

In suits brought by the Attorney General, monetary damages (not including punitive damages) and civil penalties may be awarded. Civil penalties may not exceed $50,000 for a first violation or $100,000 for any subsequent violation.


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