By Joe Ingebrand
The purpose of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990, is to allow people with disabilities the same opportunities as everyone else. The law applies to all areas of public life, including schools, transportation, jobs, and all public and private places that are open to the public.
Of course, many of these areas apply to cities, so here’s a brief overview of important aspects of the law cities need to be sure to follow.
Facilities constructed or altered after Jan. 26, 1992, must comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (ADA Standards) or the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). Because compliance with the ADA Standards or UFAS is a matter of federal law, they must be followed, even if local codes are more lenient.
Program access in existing facilities
State and local government services, programs, and activities, when viewed in their entirety, must be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. This standard, known as “program access,” applies to all existing facilities of state and local governments.
Removing barriers to access in pre-ADA facilities—or moving programs from pre-ADA facilities to newer and more accessible facilities, or even providing those programs in more accessible ways—will ensure full opportunities for people with disabilities to participate while minimizing costs.
Governments do not have to take any action that would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs or result in an undue financial or administrative burden, taking into account all resources available for use by the program.
The 2010 ADA Standards contain requirements for recreational facilities that were not addressed in the 1991 standards or UFAS. These include swimming pools, play areas, exercise machines, court sport facilities, and boating and fishing piers.
Because there were no previous accessibility standards for these types of facilities, the safe harbor does not apply. So even if one of the city’s recreational facilities were built prior to 2010, the program access rules apply, and the 2010 standards must be followed when structural change is needed to achieve program access.
Common ADA compliance issues
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began an initiative called Project Civic Access in 1999, and over the last 17 years, it has worked with more than 100 state and local governments to bring them into compliance with the ADA. In doing so, it has observed certain common areas of non-compliance that other municipalities can learn from.
One area the DOJ found that organizations struggle with is new construction and alterations. It is very common for architects and contractors to follow only their local building codes, which may not provide the same degree of accessibility to people with disabilities as the ADA does. Remember, compliance with local building codes does not ensure compliance with the ADA.
Perhaps the most common form of discrimination that people with disabilities face, according to the DOJ, is when others assume that they will not be able to—or want to—participate in civic programs and activities. Because of this assumption, local governments commonly build facilities or design programs without thinking through the accessibility obstacles that may arise.
The DOJ also found common accessibility problems with:
Get more details about the common non-compliance issues the DOJ found during Project Civic Access at www.ada.gov/civiccommonprobs.htm. Reviewing these common problems is a good place to start to ensure your city is in full compliance with the ADA. In addition, you may want to talk to residents with disabilities to see if they have any concerns about accessibility to city buildings or programs.
Joe Ingebrand is a senior loss control consultant with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (612) 968-1449.
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