Laws that Govern Access Requirements
Small business owners have two basic obligations under disability access laws:
1) remove existing architectural barriers to the premises; and
2) comply with building code requirements when doing any construction work.
Federal Law – Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a 1990 federal civil rights law that prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities. The ADA regulations require that you make access improvements to your business premises, ensuring that entrances, aisles, bathrooms, service counters, and other features are accessible to and useable by people with disabilities. You need to remove barriers only if removal is “readily achievable," which means easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.
California State Building Code – Compliance with Title 24 (the California Building Code) and its disability access requirements is triggered when premises are renovated or newly constructed. All construction work must comply with the disability access requirements of Title 24. In addition, when renovating your premises you must make the building’s main entrance, the primary route to the renovated area, and any bathrooms, drinking fountains, signs or public telephones serving the renovated area accessible. But if the cost of your construction project is under the "valuation threshold" -- a dollar amount that is set annually and is currently $147,863.00 – your obligation to do such additional access work is capped at 20% of your construction costs.
California Civil Rights Laws – In addition to Title 24, California has civil rights laws – the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act – that protect the right of individuals with disabilities to the full use and enjoyment of all business establishments. Both laws provide that any violation of the ADA is a violation of state law. Plaintiffs often file lawsuits in state court under the Unruh or Disabled Persons Act, rather than under the ADA, because state laws allow plaintiffs to recoup three times their actual damages, and in the event that no actual damages are sustained, plaintiffs may recover statutory damages.
Senate Bill 1608 – This recent law – the Construction-Related Accessibility Standards Compliance Act (SB 1608) – helps protect you from lawsuits if you hire a specially trained expert – a Certified Access Specialist (CASp) – and follow the CASp's recommendations.
Important reminders for small businesses
- Even if you are not engaged in construction or renovation, you are subject to federal and state disability rights laws. Compliance with building code requirements does not relieve you of the obligation to comply with civil rights laws, and vice versa.
- DBI only reviews the California disability access code requirements triggered by the renovation work. When DBI signs off on a building permit or certificate of occupancy, DBI does not conduct a general review of the premises to identify disability access code violations.
- The primary responsibility for compliance with building codes lies with your architect and contractor. Even if DBI approves the building permit or certificate of occupancy, it may miss a relevant disability access code violation. If so, you, not the City, will be responsible for the access violation.
Need additional help? Contact:
Office of Small Business
City Hall, Suite 140
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, CA 94102
Lawyer Referral and Information Service
The Bar Association of San Francisco provides a lawyer referral service to help small businesses with ADA compliance issues find pre-screened, competent, and affordable legal assistance. 30-minute consultations are available for free. Call (415) 989-1616 or submit your case online.
This information is intended as informal technical guidance. It does not replace the professional advice that an architect knowledgeable about disability access requirements can provide. It is not legal advice. If you have been sued, or face significant legal issues, you should seek the advice of an attorney who is an expert on disability access laws.