GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Officials with Disability Network West Michigan are clarifying how the Americans with Disabilities Act impacts enforcement of the state’s mask mandate.
“To be protected by the ADA, you have to have a disability and the ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” Disability Network West Michigan CEO Diane Fleser told News 8 Wednesday.
Fleser said there’s been a lot of misinformation circulating about the ADA and its use in exempting someone from a mask mandate, including fake exemption cards and fliers that prompted alerts from both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Michigan Attorney General’s office.
“It’s not this blanketed law that covers all people and exempts anyone, really, from wearing a face mask,” Fleser explained. “The American with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.”
ADA coordinator for DNWM Brian Hastings recommended anyone with a disability who’s not able to follow the mask mandate should start a dialogue with a business or restaurant they need to visit.
“You are able to ask for a reasonable modification to a policy or procedure if you’re unable to follow those rules and guidelines,” Hastings explained. “It’s best to, if you’re in need of a reasonable modification, to notify them ahead. You’re not required to, but that’s probably how you’re going to have the best interaction.”
Hastings pointed to recent guidance released by the Southeast ADA Center for additional education on ways people can request a modification and what that would look like.
For instance, offering curbside pickup or delivery would categorize as a reasonable modification someone could utilize in the event a disability prevents them from wearing a mask.
Typically, a business must be respectful of one’s privacy and can only ask how they can adapt to still serve the customer requesting a modification, but Hastings says COVID-19 has created murky waters in the business’ right to ensure health and safety when considering a request.
“We’re in an interesting scenario right now where people could be asymptomatic in carrying the disease and that can be qualified as a direct threat to the safety of individuals, both customers and staff members,” Hastings said.
In that regard, he believes a business would have the right to ask additional questions, but added there’s no specific guidance from the Department of Justice yet.
As for accusations of people faking a disability to avoid the mandate?
“You never want to assume that anybody is trying to take advantage of the law,” Hastings said. “That’s a bad assumption to start from, but also I think people just need to know that for people who are trying to take advantage, the law is not designed to protect them. It’s to protect people with disabilities.”
If you have additional questions surrounding protections under the ADA, it’s recommended you contact your local disability network. There are 15 centers for independent living in Michigan, which can be searched by county through the network’s website.