An estimated 20.2% of the United States labor force are people with disabilities according to the United States Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy. That means that 1 out of 5 people in our labor force have a disability. It is with this statistic in mind, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 which “provides people with disabilities an equal opportunity in the workplace, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation” (See the ADA Law/Regulations on the ADA.gov website). ADA is a federal law introduced in 1988, and signed into law by George Bush on July 26th, 1990. It was brought about to prevent discrimination based on disability, providing similar protection as the Civil Rights Act.
ADA is most certainly not a new topic but it is a topic that has become more common in the A/E/C industry over the past decade due to the requirements in new construction projects with public accommodations. There is still a rampant non-compliance everywhere you turn. The non-compliance is less of an issue in new construction, as most municipalities include ADA checks in their review process. The problem seems to occur where there isn’t a seamless interface between two adjacent projects. There is also consistent non-compliance in existing facilities that predate the July 1992 time frame.
You may ask the question, who does ADA specifically affect? And the answer COULD be, everyone. From our perspective, it affects civil engineers, architects, contractors, owners, developers, public works entities, and basically anyone who owns, designs, or constructs some sort of facility that will provide or require public access. However, this does not apply to private residences. When discussing the ADA law as a whole, it also affects any company that hires employees, as well as companies that provide services, just to name a few.
There are five primary titles within the ADA law that have varying applications. It can be argued that this law affects everyone, however, this law was generally introduced for the non-discrimination of individuals with disabilities.
Title I – Employment
This ensures equality for those with disabilities in all aspects of the employment process, including application, hiring, advancement, and working conditions.
Title II – Public Entities
This ensures equality in all public transportation provided by public entities, public housing, and public entity programs and services; this equality refers to the physical access standards (which is primarily what BHC RHODES, deals with) as well as the programming access (accommodating individuals with disabilities who want to participate in a particular program).
Title III – Public Accommodations
This is the title that pertains to most of the work we as civil engineers do. This basically establishes the regulations for parking stalls, sidewalks, bathroom facilities, handrails, overhead clearance along the accessible route. It applies to new construction projects started after July 1992, and also applies to existing facilities. This title may not apply to religious establishments, and clubs or organizations of a private nature.
Tile IV – Telecommunications
This title ensures that individuals with disabilities can utilize all telecommunication services (this is where the teletypewriter (TTY) and telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD) came into existence.)
Title V – Miscellaneous Provisions
Among other things, this title provides protection from retaliation or coercion for any individual exercising his/her rights under the ADA.
Now, you may be asking yourself if all existing facilities need to be retrofitted. Under Title III, the requirements for existing facilities are discussed. Any existing facility that undergoes modifications or alterations must eventually be brought into compliance. Additionally, existing facilities need to remove architectural barriers as long as their removal is “readily achievable.” Readily achievable is defined by being easily attainable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. Readily achievable will be determined on a case-by-case basis in light of resources available. However, the validity of continually claiming that a particular barrier removal is not “readily achievable” goes down over time as the Department of Justice expects all barriers to be removed eventually. Examples of barrier removal measures include: Installing ramps; making curb cuts at sidewalks and entrances; rearranging tables, chairs, vending machines, display racks, and other furniture; widening doorways; installing grab bars in toilet stalls; adding raised letters or braille to elevator control buttons. First priority should be given to measures that will enable individuals with disabilities to “get to the front door” followed by measures to provide access to areas providing goods and services.
Common errors and/or omissions in new construction and alterations has been the subject of many when discussing ADA compliance. As mentioned previously, ADA requires that new construction and alterations to existing facilities must meet the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. When discussing accessibility it often comes down to inches or typical construction tolerances, so it is imperative to pay close attention to detail. A matter of inches could be the difference between complying or missing something, which in turn running the risk of creating a barrier for someone with a disability. For example, most of us have been in a parking lot where a curb ramp is extending into an access aisle at an open parking space, because of this, a person using a wheelchair may not be able to get out of their vehicle safely and without any problem. This was a mistake that did not become a problem until a person with a disability was unable to get out of their car thus disabling them to “get to the front door.”
ADA will continue to be a topic of conversation in the A/E/C industry. Many owners/developers are altering their existing facilities to minimize accessibility barriers for persons with disabilities in the future. If you are wondering if you are compliant or want to learn more about ADA compliance, please contact our experts or visit ada.gov.