Various state and federal disability access laws apply to businesses and property owners. You are at risk of being sued if your business isn’t accessible.
The information on this page is intended as informal technical guidance. It does not replace the professional advice that an architect knowledgeable about disability access requirements can provide. It is not legal advice.
If you have been sued, or face significant legal issues, you should seek the advice of an attorney who is an expert on disability access laws.
Key information for small businesses
- Reach out to the Office of Small Business to talk to a permit specialist. They can look up information about your location, or a location you’re interested in.
- Read and negotiate your lease carefully. Some property owners require tenants to pay for accessibility work, which can be expensive. Contact the Office of Small Business for leasing review and help.
- Getting an inspection and report from a CASp (Certified Access Specialist) is the best way to find out if your business is accessible. See a list of CASp inspectors.
- Get reimbursed for CASp inspections and accessibility improvements with an Accessible Barrier Removal Grant from the Office of Small Business. It offers up to $10,000 to eligible small businesses to improve access to their business.
- Don’t forget about your website. It also needs to be accessible. Learn more at accessibility.com
Understand the basics of the law
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a 1990 federal civil rights law that prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities. ADA regulations require that you make entrances, aisles, bathrooms, service counters, and other features accessible to and useable by people with disabilities.
Small business owners have basic obligations under disability access laws. To:
1) remove existing architectural barriers to the premises
2) comply with building code requirements when doing any construction work.
You must always be improving the accessibility of your business.
Even if you aren’t planning any tenant improvements or renovations, your business still needs to be accessible.
There is an exception for improvements that aren’t “readily achievable.” Readily achievable means easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. If improvements are too expensive, you need a plan for how to make them over time.
Even if you cannot complete all improvements right away, you are still required to serve people with disabilities. This is called “equivalent access to goods and services.”
A CASp inspection is the best way to assess your business and provide guidance on what is readily achievable.
San Francisco’s Accessible Business Entrance program
The Accessible Business Entrance program (ABE) is a local ordinance to ensure property owners follow accessibility laws so that people with disabilities can access goods and services. Learn more about the ABE program.
While the ABE requires property owners to comply, many require their commercial tenants to comply and pay for accessibility improvements. Check your lease to see if you are responsible as a commercial tenant.
Understand accessible construction
The California Building Code has specific ways to make your business accessible, but only requires that business owners make improvements whenever they are doing construction or renovation, typically under a building permit.
If you renovate your business, the area of the remodel must meet accessibility standards. You may also be required to update some or all of the business’s main entrance, the primary route to the renovated area, and any bathrooms, drinking water fill stations, or signs serving the area of remodel accessible.
If the cost of your construction project is under the “state valuation threshold,” you are allowed to limit the costs of your improvements outside of the area of remodel to 20% of your construction costs. This valuation threshold changes every year.
NOTE: If your project is valued over the threshold, and you are limiting your improvements outside the area of remodel to 20% of your construction costs, you must get approval from the SF Department of Building Inspection to show technical infeasibility or unreasonable hardship. Even with the exemption, you can still be sued if your business is not accessible.
In San Francisco, when DBI signs off on a building permit or certificate of occupancy, they do not conduct a general review of the premises to identify disability access code violations. That is the responsibility of your architect and contractor.
Even if DBI approves the building permit or certificate of occupancy, it may miss a relevant disability access code violation. If so, you, not the City, will be responsible for the violation.
Protect your business from a lawsuit
Any violation of the federal ADA is also a violation of State law.
Plaintiffs often file lawsuits in state court under the Unruh or Disabled Persons Act, rather than under the ADA, because state laws allow plaintiffs to recoup three times their actual damages. Also, even if no actual damages are sustained, plaintiffs may recover statutory damages.
If you are sued, contact a lawyer. Here are some legal resources for small businesses.
having a CASp inspection report makes you eligible to request a 90-day stay of the lawsuit (the lawsuit cannot move forward for 90 days) and an Early Evaluation Conference. You may also qualify for a 90-day stay if you have a completed job card from a CASp-certified building inspector, or are a small business with 25 or fewer employees and gross receipts of less than $3.5 million.
Settling or paying the demand money without addressing accessibility needs in your business will not prevent future complaints or suits.
This is a list of local Certified Access Specialists (CASp), a person that has been tested and certified by the state as an expert in disability access laws. A Certified Access Specialist (CASp) report provides a defense against lawsuits, but only if the business obtained a CASp report BEFORE being sued.
The United States Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division created this guide to help Small Businesses understand and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Since every business must comply with the Americans with Disability Act, this guide helps small businesses understand and meet those requirements. This brochure also serves as the Access Information Notice required by Administrative Code Chapter 38, where landlords must provide this information to tenants at the time of lease execution or amendment for spaces 7,500 sq. ft. or less.
Presentation explaining what service animals are and how they, and their owners, must be treated in San Francisco.
Businesses can take advantage of two Federal tax incentives available to help cover costs of making access improvements for customers with disabilities. This US Department of Justice document explains.
Continue in the Step by step guide to starting a business in San Francisco