Why aren’t more medical offices and equipment wheelchair accessible?

  • Yes, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other access laws cover doctor offices and medical equipment.
  • But there medical providers not in compliance. Fortunately, the DOJ plans to address this — eventually.
  • Our Accessibility Services director of codes and standards, Marsha Mazz, breaks it down and explains what you can do about it.

Question: Don’t all doctor’s offices and hospitals have to comply with the ADA?

And if so, isn’t there a way to enforce the law without suing them, which ruins our relationship with that provider? I would like to have confidence that I can get an eye exam, mammogram and sonogram without worrying if I can access their equipment comfortably and safely. After using a wheelchair for over 25 years, I am mighty tired of the dreaded search and disappointment of trying to obtain medical care.

Answer: Yes, doctors are required to afford people with disabilities full and equal access to their facilities, goods, and services.

“Full and equal access” means the practice must have sufficient accessible equipment to treat people with disabilities. Additionally, it must be in a manner that is equally effective as their treatment of nondisabled people. We all would agree that a physical performed on a patient sitting in their wheelchair is not equitable compared to what a nondisabled patient receives on an exam table. It is also questionable whether such an exam can be equally effective.

As most people know by now, the ADA does not always require public accommodations to immediately make the changes necessary to avoid discrimination based on disability. Not even doctor’s offices. If the provision of accessible diagnostic equipment would result in “significant difficulty or expense,” the ADA allows the business to put off buying or modifying the equipment until they can afford it without encountering an “undue burden.”

Let’s get real, though. It has been nearly 33 years since the ADA became law.

So, after all these years, why do so many doctors still have inaccessible diagnostic equipment? There are three major reasons:

First, people with disabilities are reluctant to assert their civil rights if it jeopardizes their relationship with a healthcare provider.

Secondly, diagnostic equipment manufacturers were slow to focus on the accessibility market, possibly because all such equipment is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, slowing down the roll-out of new equipment.

Finally, and more importantly, the U.S. Department of Justice, responsible for setting standards and enforcing the ADA, has not yet adopted standards for accessible diagnostic equipment.

The Law Has No Standards

In 2017, the Access Board issued its Standards for Accessible Medical Diagnostic Equipment in response to adding Section (510) to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unfortunately, the new law did not authorize the Access Board to make the standards mandatory. Instead, Congress relied on federal agencies, such as the DOJ and the Department of Health and Human Services, to adopt and enforce standards under the ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In Fall 2022, the DOJ announced plans to publish a proposed rule to adopt accessibility standards for medical diagnostic equipment by April 2023. Although DOJ appears to have missed that deadline, the proposed rule should be out soon.

The DOJ will invite people with disabilities and others to comment on the substance of the proposed rule. I plan to urge DOJ to expedite the rule by adopting the Access Board’s Standards and publishing a final rule without delay. Without an enforceable standard, medical practitioners can avoid providing truly equitable healthcare by using the excuse that there are no standards for their diagnostic equipment.

You Don’t Have to Wait for the DOJ.

You can file a complaint with DOJ or another federal agency.

Or, if you prefer a gentler approach, provide your doctor with some technical assistance. First, make it clear that offering accessible equipment is not only responsive to civil rights law. It is also the best way to protect patients and the staff assisting them from an unnecessary injury that could cost far more than the equipment. Then, let them know that federal tax credits and deductions are available to assist private businesses in complying with the ADA. Also, you can provide them with this handy DOJ guidance: Access to Medical Care for Individuals with Mobility Disabilities.

— Marsha Mazz