Of all the places the average person might think would be sensitive to the needs of those with disabilities, medical facilities would top the list. However, not all medical facilities meet ADA compliance directives. This oversight causes a huge number of problems for the most vulnerable patients. To serve all patients with the highest level of care, medical facilities must maintain compliance with ADA requirements in their physical offices and online presence.
Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, along with Section 504, require that medical facilities provide individuals with disabilities full and equal access to their health care services and facilities. These facilities must make reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities unless doing so would change the essential nature of the care provided. Recent court cases have highlighted the fact that accessibility does not only apply to the physical location of the medical facility, but also to the practice’s online presence.
Physical Accommodation Requirements
When many providers think of accommodation, what comes to mind is modifying the entryway to the office to make it accessible to patients in a wheelchair. While this is certainly one of the accommodations required by law, it is far from the only thing needed if one is to comply with the spirit and letter of the ADA.
There is a requirement that medical facilities allow disabled patients to “get through the door.” This does not mean the facility must provide wheelchair ramps at every entrance. However, at least one entrance, preferably the main one, must include a ramp for disabled access. Likewise, doorways need to be wide enough to allow those in wheelchairs to pass comfortably. The ADAAG standards specify that doorways need to be at least 32 inches wide when the door is opened 90 degrees to allow for wheelchair access.
What if the facility is located along a city street with no curb cuts? Curb cuts are small ramps in the majority of city sidewalks that allow for wheelchair access. If the facility does not own or control the sidewalk, the responsibility for curb cuts fall on the city and the facility does not need to install its own. However, if the facility does own or control the sidewalk, then it must provide a curb ramp for patients.
Likewise, if the facility’s parking is on city-owned streets, it does not need to provide handicapped parking spots. If it does own the lots, it must provide appropriate parking for patients with disabilities. If the facility rents from a landlord, the responsibility for providing accessible parking spots must be split between landlord and tenant.
Examination tables must be accessible for patients in wheelchairs. It is critical to note that examining a wheelchair-bound patient in their chair is not an acceptable substitute for a table exam. It is recommended to have an examination table that will lower down to a height of no more than approximately 17 inches from the floor so wheelchair-bound patients may safely hoist themselves to the examining table either with or without assistance.
Also, it is the responsibility of the medical practice to ensure this table is available when the patient arrives so the patient is not subject to excessive wait times. Forcing disabled patients to wait a disproportionately long time for an accessible table is not ensuring equal access to care.
Ensuring accessibility to restrooms is another must for medical facilities. In addition to doorways that are wide enough to fit a wheelchair, medical facilities are also required to avoid patient embarrassment by installing handicap-accessible bathroom features.
The required bathroom modifications include having handrails for wheelchair-bound patients, as well as installing hardware no more than a legally specified number of inches from the floor. The bottom of all mirrors must be no higher than 40 inches off the ground, and soap and hand sanitizer dispensers must be no more than 44 inches from the floor to ensure all patients can reach the sanitary supplies they need to look and feel clean.
Accommodations That Go Beyond Obvious Physical Modifications
As the medical world changes, practitioners must also adapt. This has huge ramifications for medical professionals, as they must strive to make not only their physical office but also their virtual presence accessible for those with disabilities.
Under the ACA, medical provider websites must comply with WCAG guidelines. WGAC stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. As with physical accessibility, websites must comply with ADA standards. For example, individuals with visual impairments may find it impossible to see links that are highlighted only in blue with no underlines. Likewise, those with various impairments may not be able to click on images in order to access records or view available appointment times.
Failure to comply with WCAG guidelines can land a medical practice in legal hot water. For example, Tenet Healthcare, which operates three hospitals, is in court over ADA compliance. Because its website was incompatible with the popular screen reading technology used by visually impaired patients, Tenet may find itself straddled with hefty fines and court fees. While Tenet is a major provider that can likely afford to absorb the costs of a lawsuit, smaller family medical practices may not be so lucky should they fall out of compliance.
To avoid potential liability, it is recommended that medical practices hire reputable web design companies with considerable experience in ADA requirements. Minor details that may be overlooked by smaller web design firms can lead to serious legal and financial consequences for medical practitioners. As the adage goes, having an ADA-compliant website is definitely an area in which an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Just because medical practitioners deal with the disabled on a regular basis doesn’t mean they have the time or requisite construction or technological knowledge to keep their practice ADA-compliant. In order to avoid liability and to maximize patient care experience, taking care in hiring the right contractors and web design agents can make or break a medical practice’s long-term success