25 yrs later: How has Americans with Disabilities Act affected FMs?

25th_logoThe Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago this summer by President George H.W. Bush. Comprehensive in scope, intending to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, it now covers an estimated 55 million Americans.

The act is intended to cover five areas: Employment, access to state and local government facilities and services, public accommodations, telecommunications and transportation.

For facilities managers, ADA means constantly assessing their facilities’ accessibility and what codes do they need to meet. FMs know it’s considered standard under ADA guidelines for accessibility compliance to add up to 20 percent to the cost of major architectural remodeling projects

Even a cursory search of the internet finds volumes of material published to help FMs navigate the complexities of the ADA regulations, such as this guide for university FMs.

Since the ADA was signed into law in 1990, BOMA International has served on the American with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines Review Advisory Committee, the ANSI/ICC A117.1 Standard Committee and a number of other key forums where new accessibility provisions are developed. BOMA also has worked to ensure model building codes and standards are consistent with ADA Accessibility Guidelines. During the 2010 update of these guidelines, BOMA collaborated closely with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Access Board on revised requirements for a broad range of commercial spaces.

In addition to its continued participation in the development of federal regulations, building codes and standards, BOMA International has been able to provide property professionals with the resources and educational materials to better their understanding of ADA regulations and encourage implementation, leading to a more accessible built environment. Over the past 25 years, BOMA has created an entire library of ADA compliance publications for commercial property owners and managers, including:

•    BOMA International’s ADA Compliance Guidebook: A Checklist for Your Building (1991);
•    Opening Doors: Your Guide for Accommodating Persons with Disabilities (1992);
•    The ADA Answer Book (1992);
•    Guide to ADA Accessibility Regulations: Complying with Federal Rules and Model Building Code Requirements (2003); and, most recently,
•    Guide to the 2010 ADA Standards.

So how are we doing on accessibility? It depends on who you ask.

The Center for An Accessible Society finds:

“The ADA has profoundly changed how society views and accommodates its citizens with disabilities. Universal design — the practice of designing products, buildings and public spaces and programs to be usable by the greatest number of people — has helped create a society where curb cuts, ramps, lifts on buses, and other access designs are increasingly common. In the process, we have discovered that an accessible society is good for everyone, not just people with disabilities….

Studies have shown, however, that businesses have adapted to the ADA much more easily – and inexpensively – than the doomsayers predicted. Some have even made money by making accommodations. Law Professor Peter Blanck of the University of Iowa has studied business compliance with the ADA, including Sears Roebuck and many other large businesses, and found that compliance was often as easy as raising or lowering a desk, installing a ramp, or modifying a dress code. Another survey found that three-quarters of all changes cost less than $100.

Moreover, the predicted flood of lawsuits proved to be imaginary. Almost 90 percent of the cases brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are thrown out. And only about 650 lawsuits were filed in the ADA ‘s first five years – a small number compared to 6 million businesses, 666,000 public and private employers, and 80,000 units of state and local governments that must comply. The American Bar Association recently conducted a survey and learned that, of the cases that actually go to court, 98 percent are decided in favor of the defendants, usually businesses.”

However, experts speaking to The Atlantic find cities woefully inaccessible:

“Enforcement of these regulations can be convoluted. State and local jurisdictions are responsible for ensuring that their building codes comply with the ADA. In some places, it is the responsibility of the Federal Highway Administration to make sure that roads and sidewalks are wheelchair-accessible. Much of the actual enforcement of these regulations is complaint-driven, which means a person has to actually contact the U.S. Department of Justice to report a business that is inaccessible.

“Recently, things have turned around a bit, says Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “Here we are at the 25th anniversary of the ADA. They’ve had a long time to do enforcement, and it did take them a long time to get started,” she says. “But in the last 18 months to two years, the [Federal Highway Administration] has been really seriously taking on the enforcement challenge, and getting a bureaucracy that’s used to disregarding these requirements used to implementing them.”

“I asked which cities were set up well for people with disabilities. They couldn’t come up with a single one.”

“The Department of Justice also has a program called Project Civic Access, which sends inspectors to cities across the country to check on parks, museums, community services, recreation centers, and other buildings for compliance. Since 1999, the project has come to 215 settlement agreements and hit all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
But still, Golden says, there’s a lot of work to be done. “No matter how many hundreds of cities they do, it’s still only a fraction of the many thousands of cities across the country.”

“I talked to Golden while she was at a disability-rights conference. I asked her whether there was any city that was set up well for people with disabilities, and people in wheelchairs specifically. She laughed and turned to a nearby group to ask them what they thought. They couldn’t come up with a single one. Half way through our conversation, someone piped up to say that Denver was ‘decent.’ “

The United States Dept. of Justice keeps a running list of cases, in their respective categories, from 2006 to present. Click here to see the list.

Even after 25 years of ADA, you still find violations in access to polling places across America; a lack of emergency planning for people with disabilities, access violations in theaters, stadiums, and other public entertainment venues; access violations in medical centers; and public transportation such as trains, among many others. (Polling place barriers are such a common problem that there is even a brochure about it.)

What challenges await future facilities managers?

Lex Frieden, professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, who is credited with being the chief architect of the ADA, is worried about the future of the 76 million baby boomers as they age and some become disabled. He told Knolwdge@Wharton:

“[They] will have demands on the economy, society, infrastructure and on their environment — we need to prepare for that population.”