Buildings and Structures

Just entering a building was often an insurmountable obstacle for the disabled prior to the ADA's regulations. The access to public places and commercial facilities, including parking, stairways, steps, turnstiles and foyers must accommodate the disabled so they can enter the building without difficulty.

The ADA requires that a building be barrier free and allow easy use of sinks, shelving, telephones, tables, display racks and even paper towel dispensers by the disabled. Not only must doorways be widened and bathrooms made wheelchair friendly, ATM machines and counters must be positioned for disabled use. Braille or voice announcements are required for public elevators.

New building construction requires more extensive accommodations than buildings built before the ADA. However, where any alterations are voluntarily undertaken in a pre-ADA building, specific accommodations for access are required (if they are technically feasible), although the building may not have had them in the past. Additionally, facilities such as restaurants, hospitals, libraries, retail stores and hotels must meet certain criteria, regardless of age, on such items as:

  • entrances
  • windows and doors
  • toilets and urinals
  • bathtubs and showers
  • water fountains
  • handrails
  • alarms
  • fitting rooms
  • telephones
  • built-in seating
  • storage

The U.S. Department of Justice has enacted specific construction and alteration standards for each item in its ADA Guidelines for Accessible Design (ADAAG), which can be viewed at ADA.

My wheelchair is unable to get down the main aisle of the local hardware store because of several displays. Should the aisles not be freed up?

Yes. A commercial facility, such as a hardware store, must remove any barriers that block your access, if the accommodation is readily achievable. In your case, the removal of displays that are moveable, such as pallets of plants or tools displayed on racks that turn is "readily achievable."

Sidebar: If an architectural barrier cannot be removed in a way that is reasonably achievable, it is not required. For example, the width of hallways in an older building may not have to be widened if that would require the walls to be completely torn apart. For more information regarding specific barriers and measurements, go to the ADAAG file on ADA.

Does the ADA apply to older structures?

Yes, even existing public buildings must be retrofitted to accommodate the disabled, according to the requirements set by the Department of Justice for new construction. Typically, the renovations include wheelchair accessible bathrooms, barrier-free entrances such as ramps, and handicapped parking spaces. The entire building does not have to be remodelled since removal of obstacles that cannot be reasonably achieved is not required.

I own a historical building that would be very difficult to bring into compliance with ADA. Do ADA regulations apply to it?

Yes. At a minimum at least one accessible entrance must be provided. Beyond that, the ADA requires renovations that are "readily achievable." In the case of your historical building, which cannot be easily or readily modified, you are permitted to provide relatively achievable alterations, such as signs indicating the nearest handicapped bathroom.

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