OLR Research Report

May 17, 2006




By: Veronica Rose, Principal Analyst

You asked if the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires restaurants to be handicapped accessible.


The answer is yes. For ADA purposes, a restaurant is a place of public accommodation subject to the act's accessibility standards. This means that any restaurant opened for first occupancy after January 26, 1993 must be readily accessible to people with disabilities, unless it is structurally impracticable to meet the requirements. The standard applies to everything from parking spaces to entrances, dining areas, and restrooms.

Restaurants that opened for first occupancy before the 1993 cutoff date do not have to be fully accessible. But they must remove architectural and communication barriers if readily achievable and, if not readily achievable, provide an alternative method of making goods and services available to people with disabilities. Also, if any major renovations take place after January 26, 1992, the renovated area of the facility must be made readily accessible to people with disabilities, to the maximum extent feasible.

More information on the ADA is available at the Department of Justice (DOJ) webpage at


ADA, which took effect on January 26, 1992, is a federal law aimed at providing “a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” (42 USC 12101(b)(1)). It prohibits discrimination in several areas against people with disabilities. Title III states that:

No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of a disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation (42 USC 12182(a)).

The act requires places of public accommodation operated by private entities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with its accessibility standards. ADA applies to a wide range of facilities whose operations affect commerce. These include restaurants, bars, and other food serving establishments (42 USC 12181(7) and 28 CFR 36.104)). ADA does not apply to (1) private clubs exempted from coverage under Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; (2) religious organizations or entities controlled by such organizations; and (3) multifamily buildings, which are covered by the 1988 Federal Housing Administration Act (42 USC 12187 & 12204 et. seq.).

New Facilities

ADA requires that restaurants and other places of public accommodation constructed for first occupancy after January 26, 1993 be designed and built to be readily accessible to people with disabilities, unless it is “structurally impracticable” to do so (42 USC 12183(a)(1)). “Readily accessible” means that a reasonable number of elements, such as parking spaces and bathrooms, are handicapped accessible.

Existing Facilities

ADA requires owners of restaurants and other public accommodations that predate the 1993 cutoff date to remove barriers where readily achievable (e.g., eliminate turnstiles, widen doors, and install ramps). When not readily achievable, they must provide an alternative method of making their goods and services available to people with disabilities. “Readily achievable” means "easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense" (42 USC 12181(8)). Readily achievable modifications include lowering telephones and installing grab bars where only routine wall reinforcement is required.

ADA also requires existing public accommodations to (1) make reasonable modifications to their policies, practices, and procedures to make their goods or services available to people with disabilities if modification would not fundamentally alter the goods or services and (2) provide auxiliary aids for people with disabilities if doing so would not alter the nature of the goods or services or impose an undue burden on the establishments.


If alterations are made to an existing restaurant or other public accommodation after January 26, 1992, the altered portion of the facility must be handicapped accessible to the maximum extent feasible (42 USC 12183(a)(2)). DOJ has indicated that it will construe this provision to apply to alterations that require a state, county, or local government permit. According to DOJ's regulations, "alterations" include remodeling, renovation, and changes in structural parts or configuration of walls but exclude normal maintenance, painting, or asbestos removal. “To the maximum extent feasible” means that features being altered must be made handicapped accessible unless it is not technically feasible.

When a proposed alteration to an existing restaurant or other public accommodation could affect the usability of, or access to, an area containing a primary function, the path of travel to the altered area and to the bathrooms, telephones and drinking fountains serving that area must be made accessible, unless the cost of the path-of-travel alterations are disproportionate to the cost and scope of the overall alterations (42 USC 12183(a)(2)). The cost is disproportionate if it exceeds 20 percent of the cost of the underlying alteration (28 CFR 36.403(f)). In this case, the path of travel must be made handicapped accessible without going over the 20 percent, giving priority to those elements that provide the greatest access.

ADA does not require alterations; but it requires alterations that affect usability to be made in a manner that provides handicapped access.

Historic Properties

Properties on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, or properties designated as historic under state or local law are subject to less stringent requirements if full compliance with ADA would threaten their historical significance.


ADA defines a disability as:

1. any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity,

2. having a history of such an impairment, or

3. being regarded as having such an impairment (42 USC 12102(1)).

The act explicitly excludes the following conditions:

1. homosexuality;

2. bisexuality;

3. transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not the result of physical impairments, and other sexual behavior disorders;

4. compulsive gambling, kleptomania, and pyromania; and

5. mental disorders caused by current illegal drug use (42 USC 12211).


Under ADA, aggrieved parties can bring suits in federal court in which they can obtain court orders to stop discrimination. They may also file complaints with the U.S. attorney general, who may commence a civil action on their behalf and seek monetary damages and civil penalties. The court may order equitable relief, including requiring that the building owner comply with accessibility requirements, and it can impose a civil penalty of up to $50,000 for a first violation and up to $100,000 for subsequent violations.