The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 29 this month. It is an all-encompassing civil rights law for people with disabilities. Included in the ADA are technical specifications for business owners, architects, contractors, people with disabilities and anyone else who may need a reference point on how to make spaces accessible. These specifications are a series of measurements that let us know how to build or renovate in order to best serve people with disabilities as well as the general public.
Anytime our built environment is made more accessible everyone benefits. Think of the curb ramps at intersections that make riding a bike, walking while texting or pushing a stroller down the sidewalk and across a street so easy. Curb ramps exist because people with disabilities fought for the passage of the ADA.
Those curb ramps have technical specifications, or exact measurements, that guide the people who design sidewalks and pour concrete. Technical specifications exist for a whole host of different things in the built environment from bathrooms to playgrounds.
In Minnesota we have incorporated the technical specifications from the ADA into our building code. It is the Accessibility Code (Chapter 1341 of Building Code). Minnesota’s Accessibility Code and Building Code are very specific as to how our built environment should be constructed for safety and accessibility. Navigating the Accessibility Code and the ADA can be challenging and at times confusing.
It is possible for a building in Minnesota to be Building Code compliant and in gross violation of the ADA at the same time. Let’s use an example to better understand how Code and the ADA work together.
A business owner on any main street in Minnesota has just finished a bathroom renovation. It’s beautiful and perfect in every way. They did their due diligence and pulled all the proper permits to complete the renovation. Now it is time for the building code official to come to the business and inspect the bathroom, make sure it is all up to code, and close the permits. When the code official arrives at the site their job is to look at the bathroom–the space that the permit was pulled for. The bathroom meets code–including Chapter 1341–perfectly, so the code official closes the permit and goes on their way.
This business is fully compliant with Building Code, but on their way out of the building the code official walks past a counter that is 40 inches tall. This code official then proceeds out the front (and only) entrance, which has one step down to the sidewalk. The counter height and front step are potential ADA violations because the ADA states that business owners have an ongoing obligation to remove barriers. According to Building Code, however, these potential violations do not need to be corrected until a renovation in that area of the building takes place.
The difference between Code and the ADA is an issue of timing. The ADA informs us when an access violations must be corrected, while building code states the technical specifications we build to.
It is important for every business to have a barrier removal plan that includes all potential access violations, when they will be fixed, and how much it will cost. It is then important to implement this plan over a reasonable timeline. Businesses must correct access violations as soon as possible.
The ADA was passed July 26, 1990 with the intention of making the built environment more accessible over time. In the intervening years, many businesses have let this on-going obligation fall by the wayside. Now is the time to reinvigorate this process. Accessibility is something businesses are required to constantly be assessing in their buildings and not just when a code official says to.
The Minnesota Council on Disability’s website has many resources for anyone looking to meet their ADA obligations.