Building Codes: 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


Steven R Winkel, FAIA, CASp The PREVIEW Group, Inc. Architects providing regulatory solutions

Kerwin Lee

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp ICC-Certified Accessibility Inspector and Plan Examiner ICC-Certified Building Plan Examiner

Kerwin Says:

It has been nearly 25 years (1991) since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many of today’s practicing designers are not aware that this act was signed into law, or they hadn’t even yet been born. Although the law was enacted on July 26, 1990, the history of disabled requirements dates further back. Discrimination against people with disabilities would not be addressed by the Federal Government until 1973 when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act became law for federally funded projects. California was one of the first to have disabled access requirements written into their Building Code back in 1981. Much of what was used as the basis for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Guidelines came from California.

There is still a lot of misunderstanding on what the ADA is and what the guidelines are. Compliance with the applicable disabilities access requirements is not all or just ADA, but includes the Fair Housing Actn(FHA) for dwelling and local (California Building Code) requirements. This is why we have Chapters 11A/Privately Funded Dwellings and 11B/Public Accommodation to reflect the two different laws.

The ADA is not a building code. Although parts of it appear like building regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and the 2010 Standards are only guidelines for compliance with a Civil Right Acts. The ADA covers far more than the built environment, it includes employment and things that building designers do not normally or indirectly deal with.

The following are some common questions asked about the ADA:

■ Enforcement – The enforcement of the ADA is only through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and by law suits. There is no agency that does plan review for compliance with the ADA. Compliance rests mainly with the owner, but because the designer is an agent to the owner they will almost always be a party in the case.

■ Historic Buildings – The 2010 Standards do address historic building, much like Part 8 of Title 24 California Historical Building Code (CHBC). This section does provide for a more lenient approach to compliance to preserve historical features.

■ Adaptability vs. Accessible – Under the ADA there is little mention of “adaptable” elements. This term mainly came from the FHA for cabinets within a dwelling unit. This term has never been defined and should not be used.

■ Evolution/Changes to Regulations – It took nearly 20 years between the original ADAAG and the 2010 Standards for the guidelines to be changed. There have been other additions for children’s recreational facilities and public entities. What continues are law suits with case histories that designers may be held accountable for (i.e. lines of sight associated with standing patrons in assembly venues).

■ Code Certification – Within the ADA, the DOJ has the power to certify code as complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To date only a handful of codes have this title. The DOJ has stated that compliance with the IBC for dwellings is a “Safe Harbor.” This means compliance with the IBC complies with the FHA. The IBC is not certified as complying with the ADA.

Back in 2003, the Certified Access Specialist (CASp) program was created in California and is designed to meet the public’s need for experienced, trained, and tested individuals who can inspect buildings and sites for compliance with applicable state and federal construction-related accessibility standards. The intent of this program was to increase the level of awareness, understanding and enforcement of the building regulations for disabled accessibility. That is why your state architectural license requires a minimum of 5-hours of continuing education directly associated with disabled accessibility. This act also requires all plans/designs be reviewed by a CASp person for compliance. It was intended that all building departments have a CASp person either on staff or available for plan review. The latest count from the division of the state architects office who administers CASp, is 607 certified CASp people. From the October exam, only 17% of people who took the exams (both open and closed book portions) passed. What does that say about the program or the material needed to pass the exam?

When it comes to the ADA, do not certify compliance with the ADA even if you are a Certified Access Special program (CASp) by the State. As a designer, always stay within your area of expertise. You are not a Civil Rights lawyer. Your first responsibility is compliance with the applicable local building regulations, which is normally the CBC and any local amendments. Compliance with the CBC will bring you very close to compliance with the ADA.


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