The Americans with Disabilities Act: a broader view.

Jack McMahan

Many facility owners and managers, as well as many planning, design and management professionals interpret the Americans with Disabilities Act rather narrowly. That is, they see it applying mostly (if not solely) to the removal of physical barriers in the built environment (buildings, ramps, railings, restrooms, access routes, etc.) guided by the application of the Americans with Disabilities Accessibilities Guidelines (ADAAG). Furthermore, they view the act applying primarily to assist people with mobility disabilities unless specifically directed otherwise by ADAAG.

This viewpoint shortchanges more than 54 million citizens living with disabilities. The ADA is not a unit of measurement aimed at helping one category of individuals merely to get to and/or into a facility. There is another equally important aspect of this law that shows up more clearly in the Codes of Federal Regulations, specifically in CFR 28 Parts 35 and 36 where both ADA Title II and III are defined more broadly. Essentially they define the requirement to give people with disabilities (all types) an equal opportunity to use, enjoy and benefit by… the facility, programs, services or activities of public entities. Likewise, places of public accommodation must give people with disabilities (all types) an equal opportunity to get to, benefit by and enjoy the enterprise’s goods and service.

CFR 28 Parts 35.160 and Part 36.303 go further still by requiring facility  owners and managers to take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, members of the public, and companions with disabilities are as effective as communications with others. This is particularly meaningful in the areas of signage, labels, and wayfinding when the information contained in signs, labels, guided tours, audio systems, or wayfinding delivers essential information to visitors. In many instances professionals mistakenly interpret ADAAG as excluding exterior signs and wayfinding from ADA regulations but these opinions and interpretations need to be reconsidered carefully.

Program access and access to effective communication is often overlooked, which typically means that the individual with a disability may be able to physically access a facility, but he/she just can’t enjoy the program being offered. Resolving the problem is often easy. The key to success is identifying the omission and then applying a more inclusive perspective than just physical access. It is imperative that careful evaluation of access to programs, activities, services, and communication show up in municipal Transition Plans. It is equally important that private entities evaluate their business enterprise for access to goods, services, and effective communication even when their facility may not be required to be physically accessible.

For more information on program access or help evaluating your project please call us.