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Americans with Disabilities Act: ADA Compliance for Restaurants

This comprehensive guide dives into restaurant ADA compliance, ensuring inclusivity and equal access for all your customers and employees. Stay updated with the latest requirements and best practices to make your establishment truly welcoming for everyone.

4 mins readSeptember 03, 2023

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Americans with Disabilities Act: ADA Compliance for Restaurants

In the dynamic landscape of the dining industry, restaurant ADA compliance stands out as a cornerstone for inclusivity and accessibility. This article breaks down the essentials of the Americans with Disabilities Act tailored for restaurant owners. Discover actionable insights to ensure your establishment isn’t just compliant but also genuinely accommodating for all guests.

Why Does Your Restaurant Need to Be ADA Compliant?

Your restaurant needs to be ADA-compliant to ensure equal access and inclusivity for all guests, including those with disabilities. ADA compliance is not only a legal obligation but also demonstrates social responsibility and inclusiveness.

By adhering to these standards, restaurants can cater to a broader customer base and enhance their reputation in the community.

What Is the ADA?

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that seeks to prevent the exclusion of individuals with disabilities from daily activities such as dining at restaurants. It mandates that businesses, including restaurants, make comprehensive accommodations so that individuals with disabilities can access the same services as every other customer.

Moreover, the ADA, under the purview of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), ensures that employment discrimination based on disability is prohibited.

In the food service industry, not only is it crucial for employers to adhere to these standards for their clientele, but they must also ensure fair employment practices, balancing the rights of disabled workers with stringent public health guidelines.

Why Should Restaurant Owners Be ADA Compliant?

A significant, often underestimated, portion of the American population lives with disabilities. The Census Bureau reports that 12.7% of Americans have a disability affecting vital life activities, while the CDC estimates that one in four U.S. adultsANCHOR TEXT, totaling 61 million, are living with disabilities.

This group represents a substantial segment of the restaurant industry's current and potential clientele. As Shawn Pike, vice president at User1st, notes, "People with disabilities are sometimes your most loyal customers. There’s an opportunity there."

The ADA's framework for disability is both broad and encompassing. While it doesn't offer a finite list of disabilities, it sets forth a legal criterion to discern if an individual's condition qualifies as a disability under the terms of the law.

Disabilities, as defined by the ADA, are medical conditions or disorders — like hearing impairment, vision challenges, limb loss, or illnesses transmittable through food — that substantially hinder a person in essential life activities such as walking, seeing, hearing, or even thinking.

Given this expansive definition, a significant number of your restaurant's guests might fall under the ADA's protective umbrella. It underscores the paramount importance of ensuring ADA compliance to cater to the diverse needs of all restaurant customers.

ADA Compliance “Inside” Your Restaurant

Start by making your restaurant ADA compliant from the inside-out. Here is specific information on the different areas inside the restaurant that falls under ADA guidelines to help ensure you are compliant.

1. Restaurant Layout

  • Aisles should measure at least 36 inches wide to facilitate safe movement for customers with disabilities.

  • Ensure self-service items are accessible to wheelchair users; if not, staff assistance should be immediately available.

  • Spaces for wheelchair users to turn, either in a T-shape or a 5-foot circle, must be provided.

  • All path obstacles should be cane-detectable, positioned no higher than 27 inches from the floor and 4 inches from the walls.

  • ADA guidelines necessitate accessible routes to dining and service areas, potentially requiring modifications like ramps and the dispersion of accessible tables throughout dining spaces.

NOTE: The overall accessibility of the restaurant's layout is addressed in Section 224 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. This section includes guidelines for clear floor space, pathways, and accessible routes throughout the dining area...

2. Seats, Tables, and Counters

  • Aisles in the restaurant should be at least 36 inches wide to ensure safe movement for customers with disabilities.

  • Items and furniture should be accessible; if not, staff must be available to assist, including at self-service counters.

  • Table tops and counters must be between 28 inches and 34 inches high for wheelchair accessibility.

  • Under tables and counters, there should be knee space of at least 30 inches wide, 27 inches high, and 19 inches deep.

  • Ordering counters must be a minimum of 36 inches tall or feature a designated area for staff to assist customers.

  • While chairs and bar stools have no ADA specifications, benches must be at least 42 inches long as per Section 90.3.

  • Spaces for wheelchair users should be provided at tables, either by leaving them open or having movable chairs.

  • A minimum of 5% of tables, or at least one for establishments with fewer than 20 tables, must be ADA compliant.

  • Designate a floor space of 30 inches by 48 inches for wheelchair seating at each table or counter.

NOTE: The requirements for accessible seating, tables, and counters can be found in Section 902 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. This section outlines the specifications for clear floor space, table height, knee and toe clearance, and other factors to accommodate individuals with disabilities.

3. Restrooms

  • Restroom availability in a restaurant is determined by its dimensions, occupancy, and founding date. Every 30 customers should have access to one toilet, with bigger venues providing separate facilities for staff and customers.

  • For ADA compliance, restrooms should be readily reachable from dining sections, steering clear of kitchen or storage zones. Signage or guidance must be prominent.

  • Bathroom doors need to be at least 32 inches wide, opening up to 90 degrees. The door handles should be easy to use, demanding less than 5 pounds of force, and positioned between 36 inches and 48 inches from the ground.

  • Door locks compliant with ADA standards, ideally showing IN-USE or VACANT statuses, offer both safety and privacy.

  • Ensuring accessibility for wheelchair users is paramount: Ample maneuvering space is needed around toilets and sinks, along with specialized stalls with safety bars. The area beneath the sink should allow wheelchair users to reach the facilities.

  • Faucet and soap dispenser designs need to cater to those with mobility restrictions.

  • To aid visually impaired guests, Braille signage for restrooms is essential.

NOTE: The specifications for accessible restrooms are covered in Section 603 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. This section provides guidelines for features such as door width, clear floor space, grab bars, sinks, and toilet height to ensure restroom accessibility.

Disabled restaurant customer

ADA Compliance “Outside” Your Restaurant

The first area that a restaurant owner needs to think about ADA compliance is outside the building. It is important to follow ADA guidelines outside to make it easier for customers to make it into the restaurant. Below you will find the guidelines for the different areas required for a restaurant to be ADA compliant outside.

1. Parking Lot

  • For every set of 25 parking spaces, at least one should be designated for those with disabilities.

  • All designated parking spaces should be on flat ground, with a slope not exceeding 2%.

  • Make sure that parking for guests with disabilities is conveniently located near your establishment.

  • Ensure ample room for customers with disabilities to disembark from their vehicles, along with a clear and accessible route into your business.

  • One out of every eight accessible parking spaces should be 8 feet wide to accommodate vans.

Antoinette Theodossakos, a labor and employment attorney at Saul Ewing LLP in West Palm Beach, Florida points out that parking lots often prompt lawsuits due to issues like the dimensions or quantity of handicapped spaces as well as proper marking and signage for these spots. Additionally, clear pathways into establishments, doors that are not just wide enough but also easy to operate, and restroom-related concerns are frequent triggers for legal disputes.

NOTE: The requirements for accessible parking spaces can be found in Section 502 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Specifically, Section 502.2 states that accessible parking spaces must be provided and comply with the specifications outlined in Section 502.4...

2. Restaurant Ramps

  • The ADA requires each passenger loading zone to have an access aisle at least 60 inches wide and 20 feet long, directly beside and aligned with the vehicle pull-up area.

  • If curbs exist between the access aisle and the pull-up space, an ADA-compliant ramp is essential.

  • Building entrances should be ground-level or equipped with a 36-inch-wide ramp, 60 inches long, having a gentle 2% slope for wheelchair accessibility.

  • Ramps exceeding 6 feet in length must include handrails between 34 inches and 38 inches high.

Harry Kelly, a partner at the Nixon Peabody law firm in Washington, D.C. who specializes in real estate and accessibility, emphasizes the multitude of considerations limited-service restaurant owners must address in line with ADA and their customers with disabilities.

He states, "The primary concern should be for customers with mobility challenges. Considerations should encompass aspects like ramps leading to the establishment, the adequacy of parking spaces, and ensuring doors are sufficiently wide for wheelchair users."

The specifications for ramps leading to entrances can be found in Section 405 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. This section provides guidelines on the slope, rise, and width of ramps to ensure accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

3. Building Entrance

  • If the main entrance isn't accessible but other entrances (like employee-only back doors) are, they must be made publicly accessible, with a clear path and signage indicating their location.

  • Passenger loading zones should be around 60 inches wide and 20 feet long, positioned parallel to the building.

  • If a business is located in inaccessible areas, like the third floor without an elevator, services can be made available for home or car delivery to ensure compliance.

  • One of the significant challenges in restaurant ADA compliance is the removal of barriers, both evident and subtle.

  • ADA emphasizes removing architectural barriers that hinder access for all customers, but it also recognizes financial constraints. Alterations enhance accessibility, but businesses aren't expected to face undue financial hardship.

  • If a business can't presently afford barrier removal, the ADA allows for a postponement until it becomes financially feasible.

The requirements for accessible entrances are covered in Section 206 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. This section outlines various criteria, including door width, thresholds, and maneuvering clearances, to ensure accessible entryways.

Disabled parking

Bonus Section: Unknown ADA Compliance Tips

ADA Compliance for Employees ensures that workplaces uphold the principles and provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, providing an inclusive and accessible environment for all workers. It mandates reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, guaranteeing equal opportunity in hiring, training, and advancement.

Fostering a supportive work atmosphere not only respects the rights of individuals with disabilities but also leverages their skills and talents, contributing to overall business success. Ensuring ADA compliance in the workplace is not just a legal obligation but also a testament to an organization's commitment to diversity and equal rights.

Equal Opportunity While Hiring

Businesses must be diligent in adhering to the principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the hiring and management of their employees.

When an employer becomes aware of an employee's disability, it's their responsibility to identify and provide reasonable accommodations, which are alterations that enable disabled employees to perform their job effectively.

For instance, an employee with a back injury might be provided a stool if their role involves standing. However, accommodations are not mandated if they impose an undue hardship on the business, such as significant financial strain or disruption.

If necessary and feasible, transferring an employee to a different role that matches their capabilities is a viable solution. On another note, OSHA also requires all employers to provide their employees with sanitary toilets and restroom facilities, ensuring their immediate health and well-being.

Here are a couple of examples of court cases that had to deal with ADA compliance for employees.

CASE #1: EEOC v. UPS Supply Chain Solutions

This case concerned a deaf employee who was not provided with accommodations during staff meetings and training sessions. The EEOC claimed that UPS violated the ADA by failing to provide reasonable accommodations, and the case settled with UPS agreeing to pay damages and adjust their accommodation policies.

Citation: EEOC v UPS Supply Chain Solutions, No. C07-1292 (W.D. Wash. consent decree approved January 2009).

CASE #2: U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

An employee with a back injury requested to be transferred to a mailroom position as a reasonable accommodation. U.S. Airways denied the request, citing a seniority system. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of U.S. Airways, stating that the ADA does not require employers to make accommodations that would violate established seniority systems, but the court also emphasized the need to assess accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

Citation: US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391(2002)

Title I of the ADA covers equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. While specific sections may not be referenced, the ADA prohibits discrimination during the hiring process and requires reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities.

blind man

Tax Breaks for ADA Compliance

Meeting ADA guidelines might come with costs, but the IRS Code provides all businesses with tax deductions for incorporating ADA-compliant tools or eliminating barriers. Businesses can deduct up to $15,000 each year.

Moreover, small businesses can take advantage of a tax credit that covers up to half of their compliance expenses, with a yearly cap of $10,250. However, bigger businesses, specifically those with more than 30 employees or annual revenues surpassing $1 million from the previous year, are limited to just the deduction.

Tax Breaks and Credits for ADA Compliance

The U.S. government encourages businesses to be ADA compliant by providing tax incentives. Here's a brief overview of the available tax breaks and how businesses can claim them.

1. Disabled Access Credit (Form 8826)

  • Eligibility: Small businesses that earn $1 million or less in annual revenue or have 30 or fewer full-time employees.

  • Benefit: This credit can cover 50% of eligible expenditures over $250 but less than $10,250 for a year. The maximum tax credit is $5,000 annually.

  • Where to get the form: You can obtain Form 8826 from the IRS website or a local IRS office.

  • Supporting documentation: Keep all receipts and records of expenditures related to ADA compliance. These can include expenses related to removing barriers (architectural, communication, transportation), providing interpreters, or procuring or modifying equipment.

2. Barrier Removal Tax Deduction (IRS Code Section 190)

  • Eligibility: All businesses.

  • Benefit: Allows businesses to claim a deduction of up to $15,000 a year for expenses incurred in removing architectural or transportation barriers.

  • How to Claim: The deduction is claimed on the business's income tax return (specific form varies based on the business type, e.g., Form 1040 for sole proprietors or Form 1120 for corporations).

  • Supporting Documentation: As with the Disabled Access Credit, maintain all receipts and records of expenditures.

3. Work Opportunity Tax Credit

  • Eligibility: Businesses that hire individuals from certain targeted groups, including people with disabilities.

  • Benefit: This credit reduces the business's tax liability based on a percentage of wages paid to qualified employees.

  • Where to get the form: Form 5884 is used to claim the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

  • Supporting Documentation: Certification from the local State Employment Service Agency that the employee is a member of a targeted group.

Where to Get Help About Tax Breaks for ADA Compliance

  • IRS: For detailed information on tax credits, businesses can contact the IRS directly or visit the IRS website. Local IRS offices also provide guidance.

  • Local CPA or Tax Professional: It's often beneficial to consult with a certified public accountant (CPA) or tax professional familiar with ADA regulations and the associated tax benefits.

  • ADA National Network: While they focus primarily on ADA compliance, they might have resources or contacts that can assist businesses in understanding tax incentives related to ADA compliance.

Note: Tax rules and advantages may change over time. It is important to stay informed about the latest regulations and seek guidance from tax experts when uncertain.


  1. Understand ADA: What is it? ADA compliance refers to adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act standards to ensure accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

  1. Recognize the importance: In the restaurant industry, recognizing the importance of ADA compliance is crucial to ensure an inclusive dining experience for all customers, regardless of their physical abilities.

  1. Survey outside areas: ADA compliance in a restaurant's outside area ensures that customers with disabilities have barrier-free access to entrances, parking, and outdoor dining spaces.

  1. Access inside spaces: ADA compliance within a restaurant's interior ensures that customers with disabilities can navigate dining spaces, restrooms, and other facilities without obstruction or inconvenience.

  1. Prioritize ADA compliance for employees: Prioritizing ADA compliance for employees ensures an inclusive and accessible workplace, fostering diversity and equality for all staff members.

  1. Commit to equal opportunity: Committing to equal opportunity ensures fairness and inclusion, allowing all individuals to thrive based on merit and potential.

  1. Learn about tax breaks: Restaurants that adhere to ADA standards may qualify for tax breaks, incentivizing inclusive and accessible design.

  1. Continually educate staff: Regular training on ADA compliance ensures that restaurant team members remain informed and proactive in fostering an inclusive environment for all customers.

  1. Review and update regularly: Regularly reviewing and updating practices is essential for restaurant owners to consistently meet ADA compliance standards and ensure accessibility for all customers.

  1. Consult with experts: Restaurant owners should consult with ADA experts to ensure they consistently adhere to compliance standards and prioritize accessibility for their customers.

Having navigated through the intricacies of the ADA, you're now equipped with the essential licenses and permits needed to kickstart and operate your restaurant seamlessly. Embrace this journey with confidence, knowing you're laying the foundation for an inclusive and successful establishment.

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