"Most businesses look at the disabled as a liability rather than as a customer base," says Patrick Hughes, president of Inclusion Solutions, which provides disability products for businesses. "Creating common practical access is not difficult. And many don't realize how big the market is, and how loyal they are."
"We put out a survey for the deaf and hard of hearing in 2004, and found that the drive-thrus just weren't cutting it," says Hughes. "They loved Portillo's because a real person is in the driveway, but otherwise, the deaf customer will pull to that pay window to give their order and the person behind the counter will be angry that they've pulled up—so their experience is very unpleasant."
Karen Griffard Putz, a deaf woman who lives in the Chicago area, was actually refused service at a drive-thru a few years ago. She says some chains are making more efforts than others, and sent me her thoughts in an e-mail.
"I especially patronize Culver's because they've made a great effort with access using Order Assist," she wrote. (Order Assist is one of Inclusion Solution's products.) "I would truly love to see all drive-thrus made accessible and welcoming for deaf and hard of hearing customers."
One tool that helps the disabled community stay on top of which businesses are meeting their needs is JJ's List; a free online service where customers can rate different businesses on how well they serve the disabled (jjslist.com.
"Our mission is to connect businesses with people with disabilities for benefit of both," says JJ Hanley, who started JJ's List two years ago.
So what is legally required by businesses when it comes to providing accessibility to those with disabilities?
"It's different in every state," says Hollister Bundy, an attorney and accessibility expert. "And there are different guidelines depending on when the business was established. For example, if a business was built before 1992, they are required to make readily achievable changes, and there are different ideas of what 'readily achievable' means to different people."
Bundy says a business might resist making changes because they are unclear about the guidelines, and not because they are malicious.
"Many businesses wonder why they should invest in new equipment for these customers when there are several government owned facilities that aren't even accessible," says Bundy. "And each business is a case by case basis. A shoe store that's been around for decades will have different requirements than something that is new construction. It can be overwhelming so the easy thing to do is nothing."
One place Bundy recommends visiting if you own a business and need clarification on what you need to provide your disabled customers is the U.S. Department of Justice website, which has a Guide for Small Businesses document at http://www.ada.gov/smbusgd.pdf.
And Hanley says she's expanding her duties from JJ's List to holding workshops for companies looking to improve customer relations with the disabled community.
"There are 28 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing," Hughes says. "And that's not including the other customers with disabilities we see on a daily basis. If you embrace these groups, you will have customers for life."