Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Do People with Disabilities Believe the ADA Has Served Their Consumer Interests?

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Do People with Disabilities Believe the ADA Has Served Their Consumer Interests?

Article excerpt

In recent years, numerous changes in the retail sector have been made to create accessibility for people with disabilities and to establish compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This paper examines the responses of 1,000 people with disabilities taken from the 1998 National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities. These data enable us to examine whether the consumer interests of people with disabilities have been served by this legislation from the perspective of the people whom the law was designed to protect. The findings indicate that (1) respondents who are aware of the ADA are significantly more likely than those unaware of the ADA to believe that things have gotten better since the enactment of the ADA; however, a clear majority of those who are aware still believe that the ADA has made no difference; (2) respondents believe perceived access is related to disabilities and to environmental factors; (3) respondents who perceive fewer access problems spend more time in the marketplace; and (4) greater life satisfaction is related to greater perceptions of marketplace access and more frequent participation in the marketplace. In general, the results show that respondents believe their consumer interests have been served by the ADA, but the results also show there is more to be done.

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Practically speaking, one in five shoppers in a store, one in five persons on a retailer's Web site, and one in five customers in a restaurant could potentially have a disability, whether visible or invisible to the observer. That is, statistics tell us that one in every five consumers has a disability of some kind, making people with disabilities the single largest minority group in the United States at nearly 50 million (Waldrop and Stem 2003). Such estimates of the population with disabilities vary given the lack of definitional exactness as to precisely what qualifies as a disability. In addition, it is not clear how many persons who actually have a disability prefer to remain "invisible" in society and do not want to define themselves as "disabled"; thus, the actual total is unclear. Classifications attempt to include mental, mobility, and speech limitations; deafness; and visual impairments.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, promising equal opportunities for people with disabilities in a variety of venues around which daily activities revolve. The ADA originated in the civil rights era as disability activists were inspired by the women's movement and by the African American struggle (see Baker and Kaufman-Scarborough 2001 for a retrospective and background on the ADA). In the 14 years since the ADA was enacted, considerable improvements have been made in accessibility and awareness of the rights of citizens with disabilities, but progress has been uneven and incomplete (Baker and Kaufman-Scarborough 2001; Burnett and Paul 1996; Lotito, Alvarez, and Pimentel 1992).

Title III of the ADA promises accessibility for consumers with disabilities in commercial venues, including various retail businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and grocery stores. Its domain includes a wide range of institutions that provide many of life's necessities. Modifications of existing buildings as well as newly constructed buildings are required so that they are accessible to persons with disabilities under the ADA. Basically, consumers with disabilities must be enabled to experience "reasonable access" in commercial venues. However, definitions of reasonable access have not been straightforward since people with disabilities are found to experience accessibility in different ways across specific types of retail settings (Baker, Stephens, and Hill 2001). For instance, some consumers with visual impairments may define access in a restaurant as having large print or Braille menus. Such accommodations might be meaningless to a patron with a hearing impairment who instead may seek interpreters or clear signage. …

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