Beyond Building Requirements: Accessibility under The Americans with Disabilities Act

A reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) tends to bring to mind building accessibility requirements, like ramps, and other adjustments that make a building more accessible. However, the ADA is really much broader as it prohibits discrimination against persons with all types of disabilities, not just physical ones. In fact, it requires not just an accessible building, but accessible services as well. This article focuses on ADA accessibility requirements applicable to customers with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, low vision, and speech impairment.

The ADA does not require banks to change the essential nature of their business or provide services to customers with disabilities which are not provided to all customers. The ADA only requires that all services provided to customers are equal; and no customer is forced to endure additional requirements or burdens due to a disability.

Telephone communications are one area which requires special consideration. Bank employees must be familiar with and properly respond to calls placed by the Telecommunications Relay Service (“TRS”), known as “Relay Calls,” and text telephone (“TTY”) calls. A Relay Call is a call placed by a person with a hearing or speech disability to a TRS provider who in turn places an outbound call on behalf of the caller with a disability. The TRS then acts as an intermediary between the party called and the caller with a disability. TTYs are special devices that utilize typed messages back and forth. A TTY is required at both ends of the conversation in order to communicate. This means a bank must have a working TTY device to properly respond to a TTY call.

Another area governed by the ADA is in-person communication. Effective in-person communication with a person with a disability depends on the specific individual’s needs and preferences as well as the nature, length, complexity, and context of the communication. For instance, a customer applying for a mortgage has different communications needs than a customer making a simple deposit. There is usually little room for miscommunication during a simple deposit transaction. However, as the complexity of a transaction increases, as it would in a mortgage transaction, the potential for a misunderstanding in the communication also increases. As a result, different steps would need to be taken for effective in-person communication in each of these scenarios. All banks should have systems in place to address a variety of situations and customer needs.

Other areas governed by the ADA include online accessibility, which extends to Web site navigation, ATM accessibility, service animal accommodation, and signage concerns. Services which are made available on a bank’s Web site need to be accessible to those with hearing or vision disabilities. Also, service animals that meet the ADA’s definition generally must be permitted to accompany people with disabilities in all public areas. In addition, the ADA requires public space signage and ATMs be ADA compliant to ensure customers with vision impairment have access to both.

The United States government is actively concerned with banks’ ADA compliance. Recently, the Justice Department’s Disability Rights Section initiated an investigation into the ADA practices of a large publicly traded bank. It determined that the bank improperly handled Relay Calls, failed to provide alternate format financial documents to customers with vision impairment, and failed to effectively communicate in person with individuals with hearing impairment, all in violation of the ADA. Ultimately, a settlement agreement was reached which required the bank to pay up to $16 million to individuals that experienced discrimination, $1 million in charitable donations, and a $55,000 civil penalty to the United States Treasury.

If you would like an ADA compliance audit of your business as it applies to the accessibility of your services to your customers with disabilities, such as deafness, blindness, low vision, and speech impairment, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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