Many older buildings have architectural features that are barriers for people who have disabilities. Some are obvious impediments such as curbs, steps, narrow doors, or narrow pathways. But there are many other, less obvious barriers.
- Doorknobs and operating mechanisms that require tight grasping or pinching can be barriers for people who have limited manual dexterity.
- Deep pile carpeting on floors or loose gravel on exterior walkways is a barrier for people who use wheelchairs, scooters, or walkers.
- Many signs are useless for people who are blind.
- Audible alarm systems are useless for people who are deaf.
- Public telephones, drinking fountains, mirrors, and paper towel dispensers are often mounted too high, making them unreachable by people who use wheelchairs or scooters.
- Wall-mounted light fixtures that are 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 about the ADA is that older buildings are not covered, they are "grandfathered." This is not true. If your business serves the public, you must remove barriers in existing facilities based on the following considerations.
Removing or correcting 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. You 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.
What is readily achievable is determined on a case-by-case basis, relative to a particular business's resources and existing barriers. Something readily achievable for your business may not be readily achievable for the one next door, because of more limited resources or more difficult physical constraints. And, what is readily achievable when your business is doing well may not be readily achievable in a down cycle when business is slow. A barrier that cannot be removed when business is slow should be reevaluated when business improves.
If you have more barriers than you can afford to remove all at once, you can spread the work out over time. Removing barriers is an ongoing responsibility, so you should reevaluate the barriers in your facility every year to determine which ones to remove.
In evaluating what barriers need to be removed, you should give first priority to getting customers with disabilities in the door. The second priority is providing access to the areas where you provide goods and services to the public. The third priority is providing access to the restroom facilities that are provided for customers' use. Lastly, you should eliminate any other physical barriers you have.
The ADA does have limits for barrier removal. While shops may need to rearrange racks and shelves, restaurants may need to rearrange tables, and hotels may need to rearrange furniture or potted plants in order to permit wheelchair access, businesses are not expected to reduce the amount of furniture or display racks to the extent that it results in a significant loss of selling or serving space.
In removing barriers, you never have to do more than is required under the standards for alterations.
The following list of 20 ways to remove barriers and improve accessibility comes from the Justice Department’s ADA regulations. It is provided for guidance, but the list is not exhaustive.
Solutions for removing barriers
1) Installing ramps;
2) Making curb cuts at sidewalks and entrances;
3) Repositioning shelves;
4) Rearranging tables, chairs, vending machines, display racks, or other furniture to create adequate maneuvering space;
5) Repositioning telephones;
6) Adding raised letter and Braille signage on elevator control buttons;
7) Installing flashing alarm lights;
8) Widening doors;
9) Installing offset hinges to widen doorways;
10) Eliminating a turnstile or providing an alternative accessible path;
11) Installing accessible door hardware;
12) Installing grab bars in toilet stalls;
13) Rearranging toilet partitions to increase maneuvering space;
14) Insulating lavatory pipes under sinks to prevent burns;
15) Installing a raised toilet seat;
16) Installing a full length bathroom mirror;
17) Repositioning the paper towel dispenser in a bathroom;
18) Restriping a parking lot to create accessible parking spaces;
19) Installing a paper cup holder beside an inaccessible drinking fountain;
20) Removing high pile, low density carpeting.
Architectural standards for removing barriers
In identifying and removing barriers, you should use the ADA Standards for Accessible Design as a guide. If compliance with these standards is not readily achievable, you should take other readily achievable measures, as long as they are safe. You are not expected to compromise legitimate safety requirements when determining how to remove or correct a particular barrier.
The owner of a hotel decides to widen the door to the small gift shop off the lobby. Because of space and cost constraints, she is unable to install a wider frame and door to achieve the full 32-inch clearance required under the ADA Standards. However, by switching to offset hinges with the existing frame and door, she can widen the clearance from 28 inches to 30 inches. The 30 inch door clearance does not pose a significant risk to the health or safety of individuals with disabilities or others and is permitted when the normal 32-inch clearance is not readily achievable.
The owner of a small restaurant decides to use a portable ramp when people with disabilities want to enter or exit. In order to be safe, the ramp will have railings, edge protection, and a firm, stable, nonslip surface, and it will be properly secured. The owner also decides to install a bell so a customer can call for assistance when needed. This kind of arrangement is permitted when the installation of a permanent ramp is not readily achievable, as long as the portable ramp is safe.
Difference between "barrier removal" and "alterations"
Removing barriers is an ongoing obligation that is not tied to renovations, capital improvements, or alterations. From the ADA's perspective, if you have physical barriers that can easily be removed or corrected, you should go ahead and remove them.
The rules for alterations apply when you are making physical changes or improvements to your place of business. From the ADA's perspective, when you decide to modify, alter, or change an element or space that affects the accessibility or usability of your facility, that activity creates an opportunity – and an obligation – to comply fully with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
Learn more about tax incentives for businesses that improve facility access.
- If your business serves the public, you must remove barriers to improve accessibility in existing facilities where it is "readily achievable" to do so.
- Barrier removal is an ongoing obligation.
- You should give first priority to measures that enable people with disabilities to get in the door, followed by measures that enable them to get to the areas where you provide goods and services. The next priority is access to the rest room facilities that are provided for customers' use. Lastly, you should eliminate any other barriers you have.
- You are not expected to reduce the amount of furniture or display racks to the extent that it would result in a significant loss of selling or serving space.
- In identifying and removing barriers, you should use the ADA Standards for Accessible Design as a guide.
- If compliance with these standards is not readily achievable, you should take other readily achievable measures, as long as they are safe.