Are you in compliance with ADA regulations for your disabled customers? Today, guest blogger, Barbara A. Otto, Executive Director of Health & Disability Advocates and Think Beyond The Label, updates SmallBizDaily readers on new ADA changes.

By Barbara A. Otto

The Americans with Disabilities Act has helped bring about social and political change that allows the 50 million-plus Americans with disabilities to flourish. Yet the ADA still confounds businesses; most don’t know how to interpret the regulations or cater to their customers with disabilities. Many often do only what’s federally required, or worse, do nothing at all.

That’s about to change. The Department of Justice has refined the ADA to clarify its purpose and update it to reflect changes in demographics and technological advances. The new regulations, which began taking effect March 15, 2011, will impact the way businesses operate and serve their customers.

These new rules may seem significant for small businesses — but the DOJ is quelling fears that small business must assume huge expense burdens to accommodate people with disabilities.

For starters, it released a primer covering everything a business needs to know. The new regulations also specifically say modifications are required only when it is “easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense.”

Here are the top five ways these ADA revisions will impact small businesses:

1)    The ADA now requires companies that provide a public service – such as a doctor’s office or restaurant – to clear outside architectural barriers and make interior changes to comply with 2010 standards for accessible design. This may simply mean reconfiguring the placement of shelves to allow customers using mobility devices to access merchandise.

2)    Businesses will be required to amend policies, if necessary, to meet the needs of people with disabilities. A clothing store, for example, must modify its policy of permitting one person at a time in a dressing room to allow a companion if needed.

3)    You may have an ADA-compliant sign on your door saying something like: “Only service animals allowed in store.” The ADA revisions clarify that service animals are trained dogs and housebroken miniature horses only, not other animal types.

4)    If you operate a large venue like a theme park, you must allow personal mobility devices such as Segways, golf carts and other devices designed to operate in non-pedestrian areas – unless you can demonstrate the device cannot be accommodated for safety reasons.

5)    Businesses, for example, are expected to provide sign language interpretation or similar services to a person who is deaf unless doing so in a particular situation would result in an “undue burden.”

The revised ADA is not just about making modifications to ensure your business complies with the law. The DOJ wants businesses to be proactive – and look for ways in which all customers can equally access your goods and services. Without accessibility, access or communications plans, you’re essentially turning away customers who will take their business elsewhere.

Barbara A. Otto has been the Executive Director (subsequently CEO) of Health & Disability Advocates since 1994. HDA is a national policy and advocacy resource on health care for people with special health care needs, and employment services and health care-related employment supports for people with disabilities. HDA is spearheading Think Beyond the Label, a national campaign seeking to increase the employment of people with disabilities among small- and medium-sized businesses.