Ensuring Dignity for All this Holiday Season:
Expanding ADA Applicability in Public Accommodations

By Aastha Uprety, Kate Scott, and Katherine Pearson
November 21, 2018

Holiday shopping is an enjoyable activity for many, but most people wouldn’t hesitate to admit that it can also be hectic and difficult. Imagine how much harder it is to shop when navigating the store is close to physically impossible. For years at the ERC, we’ve heard about how difficult it is for people with disabilities to enjoy this simple pleasure at one major department store: Kohl’s. For example, in 2016, one Equal Rights Center member found that when using a wheelchair, the store was mostly inaccessible. Display racks were spaced too close together for her to maneuver around them and price signs were too high to be easily read. To add insult to injury, items were not within reach, and when our member accidentally knocked over some merchandise, another shopper in the store laughed at her.

The disability community faces numerous obstacles in society, and discrimination in public accommodations is just one of many barriers preventing people with disabilities from living independently and with dignity. A recent ruling from an Illinois judge, based on investigations from the ERC, may serve as an important step in the fight for accessibility rights in public accommodations and equal access for people with disabilities.

Kohl’s and the ADA

In 2014, the ERC and several individual plaintiffs with disabilities filed suit against Kohl’s for denying equal access to shoppers with disabilities. The complaint was based in part on an ERC testing investigation of 41 Kohl’s stores across 13 states, which found Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations in every location. The complaint argued that Kohl’s stores were not accessible for wheelchair users or other people with mobility disabilities who use similar devices.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, but has been interpreted by the courts differently throughout the years. Title III of the Act prohibits discrimination in public accommodations and outlines specific technical standards, including measurements, for certain accommodations such as restrooms, checkout aisles, and entrances. Many businesses base compliance on these technical standards, but the law also states that existing architectural barriers to accessibility must be removed, provided such removal is “readily achievable”.

In response to the 2014 lawsuit, Kohl’s argued that since the ADA does not have any specific technical requirements for moveable display racks, the claim against them was not valid. But even though store displays are not explicitly mentioned in the ADA’s technical standards, they are easily removable barriers, and therefore must be adjusted to provide adequate access for wheelchair users. In fact, Kohl’s own “Shopability Standards” laid out guidelines for aisle widths and were meant to provide ample spacing between display racks, but these standards were not enforced in stores.

The ERC is no longer in active litigation against Kohl’s, but individual cases against the company remain. In 2017, a judge severed the claims of the various named plaintiffs in the ERC’s original case, splitting it up and returning the named plaintiffs to courts in their home communities. At that point, the ERC withdrew our case. The ERC’s decision to withdraw from the case was made in order to make it easier for the now-individual cases to proceed, and was not a reflection of our position on the continuing salience of plaintiffs’ legal arguments. In fact, we stand strongly in support of the individual cases still making their way through the courts.

An Exciting Ruling

In one of the now split cases involving individual plaintiff Patricia Thomas, Judge Ronald A. Guzman of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois issued a positive ruling earlier this year. Judge Guzman ruled that the moveable displays at Kohl’s are in fact covered by the ADA because compliance is within achievable reach. According to the judge, the existence of Kohl’s Shopability Standards proved that removing those barriers and rearranging the store layout would be readily feasible for the company, and therefore must be adjusted to comply with the ADA—regardless of the lack of an explicit technical standard for such displays in the text of the law.

By adding to the case law that expands coverage of the ADA beyond its technical standards, Judge Guzman’s ruling could have important positive impacts on the future applicability of Title III to retail stores. This ruling could serve as precedent for other ADA-related public accommodations claims, potentially playing a major role in making life fairer and easier for people with disabilities.

Striving Toward “Full and Equal Enjoyment”

1 in 5 adults in the United States has a disability, and chances are you know somebody with a disability. While some people are born with disabilities, the disability community is unique in that anyone can become a part of it during their lifetime, particularly as they get older. Companies should be aware of the potential consumer base they exclude when their services aren’t accessible – according to the American Institutes for Research, the 64 million U.S. adults with disabilities have a combined $21 billion in discretionary income, or money available to be spent on nonessential items.

Above all else, accessibility is the right thing to do. The ADA states that people with disabilities have a right to “full and equal enjoyment” of public facilities. All public accommodations, including retail stores, should be accessible to the disability community. Oftentimes, as in the case with Kohl’s, this belief is reflected in the store’s own policies and standards—these just have to be implemented and adhered to. It is completely possible to design and build accessible spaces, and accessibility should never be seen as an unachievable burden. People with disabilities have every right to navigate the world independently, and that includes during the holiday shopping season.

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