When am I required to make ADA improvements?

Generally, we assume that most, if not all, pre-1990 built commercial buildings have some level of accessibility related issues. But did you know that many post-1990 built commercial buildings do as well? In fact, many commercial properties that were built since 2005 have barriers that should have easily been caught in the plan review stage or at least during the construction and inspection stage.

Two questions I get asked almost weekly by clients and small business owners nationwide are:

1. “Am I really required to remove barriers to access when there aren’t any permitted construction projects happening on my property?” The answer? YES!

2. “How do I determine which barriers on my property must be removed?”

… keep reading and I’ll explain the process in detail.

It’s no surprise that older buildings have architectural features that often create barriers for people who have disabilities. Some obvious barriers are:

  • Severely sloped walkways and door landings
  • Curbs and steep stairs with no handrails
  • Narrow door and aisle clearance or incredibly small restrooms

But there are many less obvious barriers such as:

  • Doorknobs and operating mechanisms that require tight grasping or pinching
  • Deep pile carpeting on floors or loose gravel on exterior walkways
  • Directional and identification signs that lack raised tactile letters and braille for the blind
  • Audible alarm systems and assisted listening devices for people who are deaf
  • Public telephones, drinking fountains, mirrors, and paper towel dispensers mounted too high, making them unusable by people who use wheelchairs or scooters
  • Low-hanging tree branches or wall-mounted light fixtures mounted at head height and extend more than four inches from the wall, or other objects that overhang or protrude into a walkway can be a hazard for people who are blind or have low vision.
  • Within a building, movable elements such as furniture, equipment, or display racks can be barriers if their location blocks an aisle or hinders a person’s ability to move around.

A common misconception is that older buildings are not covered by the Federal ADA code or that they are some how “grandfathered” at a State code level.  This couldn’t be furthest from the truth.

Any business that serves the public must remove barriers in existing facilities based on the following considerations.

  1. Either through “readily achievable” barrier removal plan which is on-going and is not triggered by a permitted project, or;
  2. Through a new construction, tenant improvement, structural repair or addition project which is considered a “trigger event” within the specific State and City/County that your facility is located in.
    The “readily achievable” barrier removal requirement is a Federal requirement only. The “trigger event” or permitted project requirement is a State and Federal requirement.  They both stand on their own and are always enforceable at both levels of government.

Removing various barriers can be simple and inexpensive in one facility, but difficult and costly in another. For this reason, the ADA sets out a flexible rule for removing barriers. Businesses must remove physical barriers in existing facilities to improve accessibility where it is “readily achievable” to do so.

Barrier removal is considered “readily achievable” when it can be easily accomplished, without much difficulty or expense.

Ok, that’s pretty vague!

What is easily accomplished by a “Target” or a ” Wal-Mart” may be extremely costly and difficult for a small business owner or small local landlord!

My advise to anyone who is just getting started on developing a “barrier removal” program is simple. First, take a deep breath and don’t over-think it. Your program will be structured based on several things:

  1. Obtaining a detailed inspection report with specific scoping, details and estimated cost analysis of all barriers to be removed.
  2. Create two lists of barriers based on their estimated cost to remove.  One list contains all “readily achievable” barriers while the other list is the expensive and difficult barriers.
  3. Create an ADA barrier removal budget based on both lists.
  4. Start by performing the “readily achievable” items first, and don’t stop until the easy items have been checked off your list.
  5. Take the expensive barrier list and figure out which items will be budgeted for removal over the course of a year or longer.

Keep in mind the “trigger event” at the local building department level when creating your plan. If your property has tenant improvement projects coming up, plan to remove barriers close to those tenant spaces along the exterior route and disabled parking areas to satisfy the 20% additional requirement on each of these permitted projects.

It really just comes down to proper planning, budgeting and being aware of your properties’ needs.

If you have any questions or want to discuss in more detail, please email me directly at chris@ada-pros.com


One Response to “When am I required to make ADA improvements?”

  1. Steve Jones July 6, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    Nice, Chris – love these dispatches . . . 🙂

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