Updated with international accessibility legislation information. See table of contents to jump to a section.
Table of Contents
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a US civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. The law was written to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
The ADA applies to escape room businesses, because an escape room is a “place of public accommodation.” Although privately-owned, places like hotels, restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters, and other recreational facilities fall under ADA regulations because they are open to the general public.
In addition, large escape room companies should be aware that the ADA prohibits discrimination of disabled persons in the employment realm. The employment portion of the ADA applies to companies with 15 or more employees.
Please note this blog article is simply a general overview of the ADA, and does not constitute legal advice. To fully understand ADA regulations, and/or discuss compliance with the law, please contact your local attorney.
A Visual History of the ADA
The ADA requires that all new facilities built by public accommodations (including small businesses), must be accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities. In addition, when a small business undertakes an alteration/remodel of its facilities it must make the alteration accessible (to the maximum extent feasible). The various building regulations can be found in the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. They include things like providing a set number accessible parking spaces, providing accessible entrances, providing accessible routes/aisles that are at least three feet wide, and placing shelves/counters at an accessible height.
When it comes to older existing buildings, the ADA requires you to remove barriers, where it is easy to do so without much difficulty or expense. Whether removing a barrier is “readily achievable” depends on the size and resources of a business, so consider the size of your particular escape room business.
In the escape room context, barrier removal that is readily achievable may include things like installing a ramp, widening a doorway, and repositioning furniture to create enough space for a wheelchair. That being said, you do not need to make extreme changes that fundamentally alter the structure of the building or nature of your room. For example, some old buildings have restrooms that are not big enough to accommodate a wheelchair. You are not required to build new bathrooms/change the entire plumbing system.
A question that is unique to the escape room industry is whether the escape games themselves need to be accessible. Unfortunately, there is no case law yet involving an escape room, so there is no clear answer.
The best approach is to design all of your rooms to be accessible, so anyone can play. In addition, you should be willing to make simple changes to your game. An example of a simple modification would be turning off strobe lighting effects if a player has a seizure type disability.
However, there may be an argument that it would be overly burdensome to fundamentally alter the nature of your escape game. For example, if your room involves crawling through a narrow tunnel to reach a clue, it may not be feasible to make the tunnel wheelchair width. In that case, you should tell players with disabilities in advance that that particular room is not accessible, or warn them that their teammates will need to complete some portions of the room for them. This advance notice at least gives them the opportunity to choose a different game or different escape room company.
Escape Room Customer Service
The ADA requires businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to their policies, practices, or procedures when serving people with disabilities. Reasonable modifications include taking the steps necessary to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities. This law means you may have to change the way you usually do things, unless you can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of your goods/services/facilities.
In many instances, escape rooms can – and must, make modifications for disabled patrons. An example of an easy policy change is permitting service animals in your escape room. Typically escape room companies do not allow animals in the rooms, because they may damage props/bother guests. However, you can easily modify that policy to permit a service dog. Another reasonable accommodation would be modifying your hint delivery system, i.e. if you typically display hints on a screen, switch to audio hints for seeing-impaired players.
Despite the foregoing, you do not need to make extreme changes that fundamentally alter the nature of your escape game services. For example, you are not required to hire game masters that are all fluent in sign language. That would be expensive and overly burdensome to your business. Reasonable steps to communicate with a deaf patron may involve writing things down, dialing the 7-1-1 telephone relay network, or hiring an interpreter for that particular game; but the ADA would not require a complete overhaul of your staff.
Escape Room Employees
The employment provisions of The ADA apply to employers with 15 or more employees. The law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations/changes to accommodate employees (or qualified applicants) with disabilities so they can do the job without causing the employer “undue hardship” (too much difficulty or expense). This anti-discrimination law applies to all employment practices, including job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, leave, and other employee benefits.
Accommodating a disabled employee may involve things like removing architectural barriers, redistributing marginal functions of a job among other staff, offering flexible work schedules, and purchasing assistance equipment/devices. For example, businesses can provide written materials in Braille, provide a quieter workspace for someone with a mental disability, and provide telecommunications relay services for people with hearing and speech disabilities.
In the escape room context, it is certainly feasible to hire a disabled game master. They could assist players with bookings online or on the phone using a relay service, run the game with appropriate game management software, and reset the room if props are at an accessible height. Additionally, most escape rooms have more than one game master working at a time, and tasks could be shared among staff in order to accommodate disabilities.
For more information on employment law for escape rooms, check out our comprehensive piece on employment law here.
What About International Accessibility Legislation?
Canada – currently no national legislation exists. However, some provinces have laws in place. Click below for details:
Hopefully, this general discussion of the ADA encourages you to read the full regulations and discuss compliance with your local lawyer. Start thinking of ways you can become more compliant with the ADA, because the takeaway of this article is that even small escape room businesses should be doing everything they can to accommodate people with disabilities.
Laura Kendall is the Co-Founder and Marketing Director of EscapeAssist Software. The EscapeAssist team has designed an all-in-one escape room software—game manager, booking system, website builder, digital waiver, leaderboard, and automatic player follow-up all in one app! Laura is a licensed California attorney with experience in various areas of law, including civil litigation, employment, insurance defense, and intellectual property. She is an escape room enthusiast who has played over 50 games around the world. Laura is very active in the escape room industry as a blogger, top Quora writer, and contributing author for the escape room trade magazine “The Last Lock.”