In conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the signing of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Department of Justice has issued new regulations implementing Title II and Title III of that act. The Final Rule makes a number of notable changes, including:

  • Service Animals. The most notable change is that no animals other than dogs qualify as service animals. Further, the dog must have been individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. A narrow exception allows for the use of trained miniature horses as alternatives to dogs in limited circumstances. “Comfort animals,” those that only provide emotional support or comfort to their owners, are not service animals. However, the rule clarifies that animals that perform tasks for people with mental disabilities (e.g., assist an individual during a seizure or take action to alleviate the onset of a psychiatric episode) do qualify as service animals. Businesses are allowed to make two inquiries regarding the use of a service animal: (1) to confirm that the animal is required because of a disability (but not the type or nature of the disability) and (2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform (but cannot request documentation).  
  • Wheelchairs and Other Mobility Devices. The amended rules provide a two-tiered approach distinguishing between wheelchairs and “other mobility devices,” such as Segway scooters or golf carts. Wheelchairs and manual mobility aides (such as crutches, walkers, and canes) must be permitted in all areas open to pedestrian use. “Other power-driven mobility devices” must be permitted unless the facility can demonstrate that the use would fundamentally alter their programs, services or activities, create a direct threat to others or create a safety hazard. A public accommodation may require a person using one of these “other power-driven mobility devices” to present a state-issued proof of disability (which must be accepted) or make a verbal representation not contradicted by observable fact that the mobility device is used for a mobility disability.  
  • Accessible Design Standards. New accessible design standards are established for a variety of recreational facilities, including swimming pools, playgrounds, golf courses, amusement rides, recreational boating facilities, exercise machines and equipment, miniature golf courses and fishing piers; as well as for such public facilities such as courthouses, jails and prisons. The 2010 Standards contain significant changes to elements previously covered by the 1991 Standards, including single-user toilet rooms, common use circulation paths in employee work areas, and accessible parking and public entrances. A safe-harbor provision allows elements in existing facilities to continue complying with the 1991 Standards until they are altered for other reasons.  
  • Reservations at Places of Lodging. Hotels and other places of lodging must implement procedures that will allow individuals with disabilities to make reservations for accessible guest rooms during the same hours and in the same manner as other guests. Such businesses must also identify and describe accessible features in the guest rooms and common areas with sufficient detail that individuals with disabilities may determine independently whether that facility meets their needs.  

The new design standards take effect March 15, 2012, but may be used now. The other changes take effect March 15, 2011. Employers are encouraged to review and update their accessibility policies and practices to ensure compliance with these new regulations before they take effect.