The other side of disability access

Photo credit: Jack Sparrow

by John Drinkwater, JD, MBA, Co-Founder, The Quiet Coalition

In a recent blog I praised Walmart for its “sensory-friendly” Saturday morning hours with dimmed lighting and no background music. Disabled, able-bodied and Walmart employees left positive comments about the new time slot on social media. The hearing disabled are our canaries in the coal mine, because adjustments that help them also benefit public health. But an unfortunate truth is disability access can be a polarizing issue, and there is both explicit and implicit bias. 

Congress passed the sweeping American with Disabilities Act over 30 years ago, and Title III covers access to stores and other places open to the public. The Department of Justice enforces Title III and in its Primer for Small Business states: “The ADA requires businesses to make ‘reasonable modifications’ to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities. Most modifications involve only minor adjustments.”

Recently a corporate officer of Trader Joe’s wrote to me and said, “hyperacusis and tinnitus are not disabilities for which Title III of the ADA requires a public accommodation for customers.” They also admitted they have no written support for this exclusion of millions of severely disabled people. It goes against the purpose of the ADA and appears to be a blatant violation of the ADA prohibition of discrimination against a class of people.

Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)  affects over 25 million Americans. Five million have burdensome chronic tinnitus, while two million find it debilitating. The CDC estimates that hyperacusis (sound sensitivity)  affects 15 million Americans, many of whom are severely debilitated. Accommodation requests often involve merely turning a dial to temporarily lower volume. A few decibels change can be the difference between staying in a place or leaving.

This denial of rights affects millions of people with a critical need: access to food. Supermarkets are among the places with the most disabling sensory barriers to participation. It must be addressed. The DOJ is currently evaluating a request to investigate sensory disabilities, if warranted, hold the grocery chain accountable. 

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