Accessibility for buildings is governed by two main acts: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The ADA in its purest form relates only to buildings occupied or significantly altered after March 13, 1991. The latest version of the ADA is the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design (2010 Standards), made effective March 2012. These standards are revised standards for the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), issued in July 1991.
The FHA was passed in 1968 as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act. The Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in the sale, renting or financing of housing. Congress added a provision prohibiting housing discrimination based on gender and sex in 1974. In 1988 it added provisions prohibiting housing discrimination based on mental and/or physical disabilities.
Although both acts cover different areas, the overall aim is to provide access to all. Non-compliance can be extremely costly with several class action lawsuits having been filed and won over the last decade by private citizens and watchdog groups.
Americans with Disabilities Act
Specifically, two areas of the ADA have significant effects on a building:
- Title I deals with employment discrimination and requires that employers not discriminate against a disabled person in hiring or employment. This can impact the configuration and features of buildings and those employers are expected to make “reasonable accommodation”, including making facilities readily accessible to disabled employees.
- Title III requires that public accommodation provide goods and services to disabled patrons on an equal basis with the non-disabled patrons. This title is the part of the ADA with perhaps the greatest impact on buildings, which provide public accommodations, including office buildings.
The ADA has provided a benchmark for measuring accessibility, primarily orientated towards new construction. It also provides guidance for modification of existing buildings to eliminate barriers to access. This benchmark is the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design (2010 Standards). The stated purpose of the guidelines is to ensure that newly constructed buildings and altered portions of existing buildings covered by the ADA are readily accessible to disabled persons.
Regulatory implementation of the ADA includes the following priorities for barrier removal in existing buildings:
- Accessible Entrances. Providing access from public sidewalks, parking or public transportation that enables disabled individuals to enter the building.
- Access to Goods and Services. Providing access to areas where goods and services are made available to the public.
- Usability of Restrooms. Providing access to restroom facilities.
- Removal of Remaining Barriers. Providing access to the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act requires seven basic requirements that must be met to comply with the Act.
These requirements are:
- Requirement 1. An accessible building entrance on an accessible route.
- Requirement 2. Accessible common and public use areas.
- Requirement 3. Usable doors (usable by a person in a wheelchair).
- Requirement 4. Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit.
- Requirement 5. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations.
- Requirement 6. Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars.
- Requirement 7. Usable kitchens and bathrooms.
For each of its seven requirements, the FHA does not require fully accessible units, but instead, apply to a broad number of dwelling units. The Act’s design and construction requirements are modest and result in units that do not look different from traditional units but can be easily adapted by people with disabilities who require features of accessibility not required by the Act.
Under the law, landlords and sellers cannot discriminate against a person based on the cited characteristics and must make reasonable accommodations for a person’s disability. The law does not apply in some cases where the landlord or seller is acting with regard to his or her private house or small apartment building. The law also allows the rejection of any tenant or buyer who would directly threaten the health or safety of other individuals or would cause substantial physical damage to the Pproperty of others.
The design requirements apply to all buildings built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 and are classed as covered multifamily dwellings.