The 411 on the ADA

Will there be disabled attendees at your next conference? Have you carefully thought through the practical and legal ramifications of accommodating those attendees? If you fail to read the conference contract closely and plan thoroughly, you may jeopardize the success of your conference and subject yourself to legal liability.

General Background on the ADA The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires, among other things, that places of public accommodation (including hotels) ensure that everyone, regardless of disability, has an equal opportunity to enjoy their services and facilities. This obligation includes the need to remove communication barriers in existing facilities where it is readily achievable to do so, make reasonable modifications in policies and procedures (such as allowing guide dogs in an otherwise "no pets" hotel), and provide auxiliary aids and services leading to effective communication if it is not an undue burden to do so. Notably, however, the ADA's accessibility requirements generally do not apply to facilities built prior to the enactment of the ADA in 1990.

ADA Contract Considerations It is critically important to ensure that the contract spells out the ADA duties of the facility and of the organization that is holding the meeting. Yet surprisingly, many organizations sign conference contracts with no ADA clause at all or a clause that places many of the most expensive ADA obligations on the organization and not the hotel.

While there is no single ADA clause that will be acceptable to all conference facilities in every instance, a reasonable compromise clause that works well in many instances is the following:

Hotel warrants that it is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and all regulations thereunder. Hotel will identify to Group, prior to acceptance of this contract, any ADA deficiencies that are "grandfathered" and that Hotel is not required to correct. The Hotel shall provide, to the extent required by the Act, such auxiliary aids and/or services as may be reasonably requested by Group for use in sleeping rooms and public areas of the hotel, provided that Group gives reasonable advance written notice to the Hotel of such needs. Group shall be responsible for the cost of any auxiliary aids and services (including engagement of and payment to specialized service providers, such as sign language interpreters) necessary for use in the meeting space used by the group, other than those types and quantities typically maintained by the Hotel. Hotel and Group will each indemnify and hold harmless the other from any liability arising from ADA violations that are the obligation of and are committed by the indemnifying party.

A wide variety of other related contract provisions could be added, depending upon the number of disabled attendees, the nature of the event, and the size and sophistication of the meeting facility. The key is to plan ahead and get every important detail into the contract.

Practical Conference Planning Considerations A few recommendations: First and foremost, do not take the hotel's word that their conference facilities are accessible to the handicapped. Instead, check it out for yourself during a site visit. In one instance, a conference planner discovered that a hotel ballroom that was allegedly accessible to disabled people could be accessed only by entering the rear of the facility and using an elevator in the hotel's kitchen.

Other less obvious problems can arise even when you've done a site visit. For example, buffet-style meals may not be practical for those with disabilities, and meeting or dining tables may be placed too closely together for wheelchairs to maneuver. Registration tables must be at an accessible height, and all shuttle buses must be accessible to disabled attendees. Finally, conference brochures should require disabled participants to report any auxiliary aids or other special needs they may have (such as special lighting, sign language interpreters, or Braille materials) as far in advance as possible so that you and/or the hotel can meet those special needs.