Access and Accommodations for People with Disabilities

“[T]he Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals,” as the Americans with Disabilities Act says.

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Achieving these goals usually requires that people with disabilities be treated the same as those who do not have disabilities. But sometimes it requires meeting their needs by removing unreasonable physical barriers, lending a helping hand, or changing the way things are normally done so that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of society without discrimination.

The Civil Rights Enforcement Section generally exercises jurisdiction over cases involving systemic patterns or practices of discrimination or that otherwise raise civil rights issues of statewide significance. Complaints of non-systemic or single incidents of discrimination generally are referred to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or another appropriate agency.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability (among other things) and provide a broad set of legal rights to ensure that people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of society. In general, the laws apply to employment, government services, private businesses that serve the public, and housing. The laws also provide recourse if legal rights are violated.

Individuals with disabilities who interact with businesses or other entities that provide goods and services to the public cannot be excluded or segregated, or otherwise treated unequally. Also, public accommodations must provide reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures; effectively communicate with people with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities; remove barriers in existing buildings where it can be done without significant difficulty or expense; meet specific requirements related to architectural standards for new and altered buildings; and provide other reasonable equal access services.

Example: A shopper who uses a wheelchair attempts to enter a retail store but cannot because of steps up to the front entrance. The store is under an obligation to accommodate the shopper and should provide curbside service, if possible. The store is also likely under an obligation to remove the physical barrier of the steps by installing a ramp or lift. If there is another entrance that is accessible, the store should install signs directing people with disabilities to the accessible entrance. Every case is unique and must be decided on the particular circumstances presented.

Discrimination in housing against individuals with disabilities – for example, in renting, selling, and mortgage lending – is unlawful under both state and federal law. Landlords and other housing providers generally must make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, and services upon request – and explore reasonable alternatives – to provide individuals with disabilities an equal housing opportunity, unless doing so would pose an undue administrative or financial burden (or fundamentally alter the operations). They also generally must allow individuals with disabilities to make reasonable structural modifications to the property at their own expense (but can require that they return it to its original condition, except for wear and tear). Also, individuals generally cannot be asked if they or the people they live with have a disability, or the nature or severity of their disabilities, except in limited circumstances.

Example: A mortgage lender imposes higher fees and income requirements on a qualified borrower with a disability than it does on similarly qualified borrowers without disabilities. Without specific information, the mortgage lender assumes that the person’s impairment will worsen over time to the detriment of their financial situation. The lender has likely discriminated on the basis of disability.

State and local governments, regardless of size or receipt of federal funding, may not discriminate against people with disabilities in their services, programs, and activities, including public transportation. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to courts, legislatures, towns, cities, counties, school districts, universities, transit authorities and other entities.

Example: Persons with vision impairments are entitled an equal opportunity to vote in government elections. To make voting accessible to persons with visual impairments, the entity holding an election could provide a qualified, impartial reader; provide information in large print; make materials available in Braille; use an audio recording; or make use of accessible technology.

Example: An apparently neutral municipal zoning ordinance requires that buildings and other structures be set-back at least 15 feet from the curb in a central commercial neighborhood. Local governments are required to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability. Thus, the municipality would be required to grant a variance needed to install a ramp for wheelchair users which is less than 15 feet from the curb as a reasonable modification or to make an exception when enforcing this law.

Individuals with disabilities cannot be discriminated against by employers.  This generally means people with disabilities have the right be treated the same as everyone else as long as they can perform the job.  Also, they have the right to ask for and receive a “reasonable accommodation” – such as a change in the way things are normally done, or special equipment – if it allows them to perform the job’s essential functions and does not impose significant difficulty or expense.  The law also protects all people – those who have a disability and those who do not – by requiring employers to make no disability-related inquiries of applicants for jobs or current employees, except in very limited circumstances.  All disability-related information the employer receives must be kept confidential.

Example: An employee who cleans an office building has a prosthetic leg. It does not limit the employee’s ability to walk but it makes it difficult and painful to climb stairs. The employee is tasked with sweeping the stairs as part of his duties and another employee is tasked with cleaning a break room. It would be a reasonable accommodation to allow them to swap those duties so the employee with the prosthetic could limit stair climbing.

Service Animals (public accommodations, employment, education, housing) – An individual with a disability is entitled to use an animal when needed to guide them or perform work or tasks related to the disability.  This means that individuals with disabilities who need to bring their service animal with them must be allowed to do so by stores or other businesses open to the public, schools, housing providers, and employers. The animal must be under control and not pose a threat to the health and safety of others.

Questions can be asked about a service animal only if the need is not known or obvious. If it is not known or obvious, only two basic questions are generally allowed:

    • Whether the animal is required because of a disability; and
    • What tasks the animal performs.

Under no circumstances can someone be asked to give access to medical records or medical providers or to provide detailed or extensive information (such as a diagnosis).

Emotional Support Animals (housing) – In addition, in the housing context, individuals with disabilities also are entitled to use emotional support animals that provide therapeutic comfort by their presence, so as to mitigate the limitations posed by their mental disabilities.

Inquiries are permitted in the housing context when someone asks for a reasonable accommodation to keep an emotional support animal when the disability or the disability-related need for the animal are not known or obvious.  In this situation, a housing provider can ask:

    • Whether the person has a disability; and
    • Whether the animal assists with a disability-related need.

If a housing provider is still uncertain about a non-obvious need for an emotional support animal the housing provide can request reliable documentation (e.g., from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional) that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates the symptoms or effects of a disability.  Note: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has stated that, in its experience, a certificate, registration, or license documents obtained or purchased on the internet is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a disability or a disability-related need for a support animal.

Under no circumstances can someone be asked to give access to medical records or medical providers or to provide detailed or extensive information (such as a diagnosis).

The disability laws require covered entities to communicate effectively with a person who has a communication disability. This may require arranging for a person with a hearing, vision, or speech impairment to receive assistance from a sign language interpreter or a transliterator. The Pennsylvania Office of the Deaf & Hard of Hearing (ODHH), an office within the Department of Labor & Industry, advocates for people with hearing loss and maintains a registry of qualified sign language interpreters and transliterators. Pennsylvania’s Sign Language Interpreter and Transliterator State Registration Act, 63 P.S. §§ 1725.1, et seq., requires sign language interpreters and transliterators to register with ODHH. Failure to register is punishable by a fine or imprisonment.

Nothing on this page should be construed as legal advice.