North Dakota Law

Updates from the University of North Dakota School of Law.

Assistant Dean, Tammy Oltz, quoted in Grand Forks Herald article on ADA compliance

Advocating for ‘tough issues’: ADA enforcement often falls to people with disabilities

Joe Bowen
Updated Wed Dec 22, 2021 6:28 AM CST

An East Grand Forks man claims a business there discriminated against him because of his disability and has filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice and with Minnesotas Department of Human Rights.

Mohamed Mohamed, an imam and the director of the East Grand Forks Islamic Center, claims a worker a self-described owner at a Dairy Queen on Central Avenue declined this summer to read the restaurants menu to him. The worker then wondered why Mohamed was driving when he had a visual disability and then, Mohamed claims, said people who are legally blind cannot drive in the United States and allegedly told him to learn how to read.

Thousands of such incidents occur everyday in our country, Mohamed wrote on Facebook shortly afterward.

One of the restaurant’s two owners declined to comment on Friday.

Mohamed has congenital nystagmus, a condition he was born with that makes his eyes shake involuntarily. It renders him legally blind but, he’s quick to point out, doesn’t mean he’s literally blind or incapable of driving.

Legally blind is a spectrum, Mohamed told the Herald, noting that he has passed a Minnesota driving test. Where I am right now, I can drive during the day, but I cant see standard print, I cant read far distance. Basically, for me to be able to read print, it has to be read to me or has to be really large.

The complaint Mohamed filed with the federal government alleges, in effect, that the restaurant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law enacted in 1990 that bars public and private entities governments, businesses, nonprofits and so on from discriminating against people with disabilities. Title III of the act obligates most businesses that are open to the public to make the business accessible to people with disabilities.

While businesses aren’t required to do anything that would cause them undue burden, they are required to make reasonable modifications, Tammy Pettinato Oltz, an assistant UND law professor who has taught disability law, told the Herald. When a customer has a hearing or visual impairment, restaurants should be prepared to make adjustments to ensure they can communicate effectively with the customer. This might include writing things down or providing other visual aids for someone who is hearing impaired. For the visually impaired, this could include having an employee read the menu or providing another way to access it, like a pre-made audio recording or a braille menu.

Mohamed said he hasn’t heard back from the federal government apart from a message confirming it had received his complaint. He said he spoke to the state government about a month ago and staff there told him they were still working on the complaint he lodged with them.

Enforcement of the disabilities act, which is commonly abbreviated as the ADA, generally happens via federal lawsuits or complaints like Mohameds. That means it often falls to disabled people to know and, in effect, enforce the law themselves, according to Herald interviewees.

Especially in the more rural communities, there aren’t too many people that are willing to file any complaint, said Randy Sorensen, executive director at Options, an East Grand Forks nonprofit that aims to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible. We’ll have people call us and talk about complaints or things we should follow up on, but we need a person with a disability that actually wants to put their name on the line. And thats where it really gets tough with ADA and trying to ensure that peoples rights aren’t being infringed upon.

That ultimately can cause a contentious relationship between people with disabilities and business owners, according to Oltz, because small businesses might not know there’s a problem with their services until someone complains or sues.

A better method for everyone, Oltz said, would involve more proactive government enforcement through inspections and the opportunity for businesses to correct minor issues before facing a lawsuit or other penalty.

Read the full Grand Forks Herald article