Back to Basics, Design and Construction

Back to Basics: The ADA’s Impact on Facility Compliance

Back to Basics is a new article series that highlights important, but possibly overlooked, information facilities management professionals should know.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that all facilities professionals should be aware of, especially when they renovate their facilities or construct new buildings. This article will look at private business ADA compliance, Title III. Municipal and state government facility professionals should consult Title II.

Who Is Covered?

Title III looks at 12 categories of businesses that are required to attempt to remove barriers in existing buildings and ensure that new or renovated buildings are accessible. These include:

  1. Stores
  2. Restaurants
  3. Bars
  4. Service establishments (such as laundromats and banks)
  5. Theaters
  6. Hotels
  7. Recreational facilities (such as golf courses and exercise facilities)
  8. Private museums
  9. Private schools
  10. Doctor’s and dentist’s offices
  11. Shopping malls
  12. Other businesses that provide goods and services

Commercial facilities not providing goods and services, like office buildings, factories, and warehouses, are still required to follow ADA when it comes to new construction and renovations.

New Construction

An ADA compliance document states that construction done on or after March 15, 2012, must meet the ADA’s 2010 standards. Kathy Gips, Director of Training at the New England ADA Center, confirmed that the 2010 standards are the newest. She said that there are currently no plans to create a new set of standards.   


Federal law requires businesses to meet 2010 standards when undertaking renovations, and the renovated area must comply with the standards, Gips said.

For example, she explained that if the entrance stairs need to be replaced, an accessible route, such as a ramp or wheelchair lift, must be provided.

Additionally, Gips said that when the renovation “involves a ‘primary function area’ such as the customer services lobby of a bank, the dining area of a restaurant, or the meeting rooms in a conference center, the owner needs to spend some money to provide an accessible path of travel to the primary function area.”

Gips said, “The owner is responsible for paying up to 20 percent of the cost of the alteration for an accessible path of travel. Costs beyond 20 percent are considered ‘disproportionate’ and are not required. Using the inaccessible front entrance as an example, if the cost of alterations to a conference room is $30,000, the owner must spend up to, but not more than, $6,000 to provide an accessible path of travel. If a ramp or wheelchair lift costs no more than $6,000, it must be installed.”

The “path of travel” requirement applies to:

  1. Parking lots with designated spaces and access aisles for wheelchairs
  2. Entrances with ramps, widened doorways, and accessible doors
  3. Restrooms

Older Buildings

“Buildings that are not accessible must make access improvements that are ‘readily achievable,’” Gips said. “‘Readily achievable’ means easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. Whether or not an entrance or restroom can be made accessible will depend on how much space is available as well as the cost. The requirement applies to recreation areas as well. A hotel must consider installing a lift or sloped entry in its swimming pool for use by those with disabilities.”

She explained that there are tax credits and deductions that can offset accessibility costs for alterations and readily achievable barrier removal.

Good-Faith Effort

Gips said that business owners should make “a good-faith effort” in providing as much accessibility as possible.

Businesses may not have the financial resources or logistics to meet certain challenges that exist with older buildings.

Like in the previous example, buildings may have inaccessible entrance stairs where it is not feasible to install a ramp or lift. In this situation, the law allows businesses, like a restaurant, to train staff that would provide take-out service for those customers.

Other ways of improving accessibility include:

  1. Reconfiguring existing restroom fixtures
  2. Widening store aisles
  3. Lowering counters at registers
  4. Moving items, like garbage cans, away from elevator call buttons

Safe Harbor

The ADA’s website states that the “safe harbor” provision provides flexibility on an element-by-element basis for existing buildings. “If you have a building in compliance with standards in 1991, you don’t need to change to 2010 standards,” Gips said. For example, light switches installed at 54 inches, adhering to 1991 standards, do not have to be lowered to 48 inches, which is the 2010 standard, unless that element is being altered.  


The U.S. Department of Justice enforces Title III of the ADA. The department typically will attempt to work with businesses to help them become compliant before lawsuits are filed and fines are levied. According to, “through lawsuits and settlement agreements, the Department of Justice has achieved greater access for individuals with disabilities in hundreds of cases.” Case history shows that some penalties have simply resulted in businesses paying for necessary accessibility upgrades while other cases resulted in additional civil penalties.

Gips said that facility professionals who would like to voluntarily understand how the ADA would impact the buildings they manage, as well as people with disabilities who would like to understand their rights, can call the ADA National Network at (800) 949-4232 or access their regional ADA center at  

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