by Tamara Scully

One in five Americans are disabled, Miranda Grunwell, community educator with the Disability Network said while addressing farmers during the recent Great Lakes Expo. That statistic covers those with physical or mental impairments which substantially limit one or more life activities. Walking, hearing, seeing and performing necessary self-care tasks fall under the definition. Those disabilities may be temporary or permanent, and may be visible or non-visible. They may be acquired during a lifetime or present at birth.

And it’s the law – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – that disabled persons are accommodated in all public places. Physical accessibility is typically the primary focus, and an important one, but there are other concerns which are often overlooked. The ADA is actually about access to all programs and services, and isn’t focused on punishing businesses or regulating them out of business, but on finding solutions (“reasonable accommodations”) that allow disabled customers to engage as fully as possible with the services offered.

Physical Accessibility

Title III of the ADA is the regulatory section that covers customer access in public places, including on-farm activities, farm stands and farm markets open to the public. The law does not require extreme modifications of existing buildings or other infrastructure; it simply requires “readily achievable things,” Grenwell emphasized.

The ADA requires access to all programs and services which must be made “equally available.” Restrooms, drinking fountains and other comfort accommodations, if available to the public, must be handicapped accessible. Physical barriers, such as steps or changes in floor heights, the size of aisles or doorways and the navigability of paths to and from parking area, as well as to other public areas, are the primary focus in the physical surroundings.

Grunwell suggested farmers re-evaluate the path to and from their parking areas. Removing curbs, compacting pathways – even if they’re dirt – and widening them to 36 inches provides accessibility to wheelchairs or to those who may need to be assisted with walking.

If, due to economic factors or other unique circumstances, it is severely burdensome or impossible to remove or alter these types of physical barriers, alternative accommodations that make your services accessible to disabled persons are required. For example, if you provide hay wagon rides to the pumpkin patch, a lift would make that ride more accessible to those in wheelchairs. However, you are not required to install a lift. Instead, you can allow customers who cannot access the hay wagon other reasonable means of accessing pumpkins. If you do install a lift, you might just have a “competitive advantage” over other nearby farms, Grunwell said. “We know what place is going to be best for what activities,” she said of members of the disabled community, including herself.

Beyond the Physical

Not all disabilities can be accommodated by eliminating stairs or widening pathways. Those with sight-related disabilities would benefit from Braille or raised character signs or large-print materials. Those who have hearing difficulties could potentially benefit from a sign language interpreter or written materials during educational tours or classes, or simply the use of a microphone during farm tours. Some people with disabilities benefit from scent-free environments, low stimulus activities or extra time to perform tasks.

When planning on-farm activities or classes, ask if anyone needs any special accommodations. Train staff to provide needed assistance, such as accessing items from high shelves, if requested to do so.

You cannot disallow disabled people access to certain events, but you can schedule certain days or times where additional accommodations are available. For example, if you offer farm tours each day, you can let disabled customers know that on Wednesdays, a slower-paced tour is available, and a staff member trained to work with autistic children, or who knows sign language, is available. It’s important that the disabled public is permitted to access any public event any time it occurs. But scheduling times to better accommodate their needs is not discriminatory, as long as they are allowed to access the service any time it’s open to the general public, if they choose to do so.

Service Animals

“If it’s where the public can go…if a person is allowed there…the service animal is allowed there,” Grunwell said. But service animals are a very specific group.

“A service animal is a dog or a miniature horse. These are the only animals you have to let on your property,” Grunwell stated. “If they are not acting like a service animal, you can ask the service animal to leave.”

Service animals can be any breed, and any size, and there is no official documentation. While you are not allowed to ask for any documentation that an animal is a service animal, or that a person is disabled, you are allowed to ask these two questions: Is this animal required for your disability? What task is it trained to perform? You cannot legally ask that the animal perform a task or demand proof of a disability.

These days, many people take animals that provide them with emotional comfort into public areas. These animals are not the same as service animals, and you do not have to allow them in your facility. An emotional support animal is not trained to do a task. It simply provides a person comfort. However, it can be difficult to distinguish the legitimacy in some situations, and you do not want to violate the law.

“It is hard. People do bring their miniature dogs in their bags and they might lie to you,” she said, and if questioned about the task the dog performs, they might say it comforts them. “When in doubt, let the person in. You are covered. You followed the law.”

If the animal does something wrong, the person has to clean it up. If the animal is interrupting customers or running around, “that is not a service animal. That’s a pet,” she said, and you can ask them to leave.

Serving the Community

Making eye contact is always good customer service, and doing so with disabled people is no different. When interacting with a person, allow them enough time to respond. It’s fine to ask people if they require any assistance. Don’t touch people or their assistive technology, and don’t follow them around. When speaking to a disabled person, it’s okay to use able-bodied words such as “see,” “hear” or “walk.”

Grunwell emphasized that most members of the disabled community are not out to cause you trouble, and that complying with the ADA is not meant to be a hardship for small businesses.

“Things that people ask for are free or low cost,” she said of requests from the disabled community. “If it’s going to put you out of business, you do not have to offer it. That is considered a hardship.”

Modifications such as lowered counters for checkout or ordering, offering trained staff to accompany disabled persons on farm tours or throughout the market if requested, providing written materials and disabled-friendly signs or offering specialized accommodations at certain times are all means of going above and beyond the ADA’s legal requirements and accommodating the disabled community.

And they all make good business sense. Disabled persons as a group have billion of dollars in discretionary income and are much more likely to spend that in places which are welcoming to their needs.

“Above everything, what really makes a difference is how you interact with us,” Grunwell said.