Architectural barriers appear in a broad range of premises liability disputes. Compliance with the ADA and other relevant codes and standards frequently removes hazards from access routes like sidewalks and entrances, building interiors, restrooms, and other accommodations. How the ADA applies to a particular property may require a thorough evaluation.
In this article, Architect & Premises Safety Expert Mark Monteith provides insight to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the implications it has on premises liability disputes.
Walkway Barriers and Accessibility Disputes – Expert Overview
It has been over thirty years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced. During that time, accessibility measures like ramps, grab bars, and braille signs have become increasingly familiar to the public. Despite the prevalence of ADA designs and features, barriers to walkway accessibility can still be found in commercial facilities, institutions, and other buildings. While places built before the ADA came into effect may have different requirements, public facilities, new and old, indoors or out, are subject to some level of walkway barrier removal.
The ADA was signed in 1990 to protect people with physical or mental impairments against discrimination. The Standards for Accessible Design were issued the following year, and revised in 2010. Title III provides comprehensive legislation for public accommodations and facilities. When, where, and to what extent barrier removal is required to remain compliant can become the subject of litigation. A property’s use, age, location, occupancy, and other factors have to be considered to make accurate evaluations of the ADA’s requirements. In newer buildings, everything from their initial design, to their continued use and maintenance can affect the users. Historic designations such as a National Historic Landmark or a structure located within an historic district may have covenants that align with, or differ from certain ADA requirements. Failure to meet the minimum barrier removal requirements of the ADA can be dangerous to users, and costly to building owners.
WHAT IS AN ARCHITECTURAL BARRIER?
The ADA defines Architectural Barriers as impediments to the access or use of facilities or available services. Walkway barriers can exist in the form of stairs, curbs, uneven surfaces, doors, furnishings, fixtures, or an aisle that is too narrow for passage. These impediments can limit or prevent access by persons with disabilities, and in many instances are defined with criteria and dimensions similar to those that apply to the general public.
The removal of architectural barriers in existing facilities is mandated by the ADA where such removal is “readily achievable” and not technically infeasible. Barrier removal that is easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense may be required to comply with the requirements for access to public accommodations. Some examples of steps to remove existing barriers include the following actions:
- Installing ramps
- Making curb cuts in sidewalks and entrances
- Repositioning shelves
- Rearranging tables, chairs, vending machines, display racks, furniture
- Widening doors
The ADA also prioritizes the order of actions to be taken for existing facilities to remain compliant. Accessibility improvements from transportation to facilities are the highest priority, followed by access to goods and services, restroom facilities, public accommodations and other measures specified.
ADA COMPLIANCE FOR WALKWAYS
One of the most fundamental components of access to a property and the services within it are the walkways. Interior and exterior walkways continue to be one of the most common locations of falls and injuries where the ADA prioritizes required barrier removal improvements at specific areas like public parking, sidewalks, and entrances.
Over the last thirty years, accessibility has been greatly improved across the United States with the introduction of accessible parking, entrance ramps and other actions like the construction of curb cuts. Replacing vertical curbing at street corners with ramps from street level to sidewalk has removed countless barriers that previously prevented some people from crossing streets safely, or at all. Public walkways from accessible parking spaces and through parking lots are now designed with clearly marked paths without barriers like steps, curbs, or other objects that prevent passage.
The standard of care for walkways to be ADA compliant begins with barrier removal. Building owners and operators are responsible for understanding these requirements and making the improvements in the locations and order prescribed in the areas where injuries and other incidents are more likely to occur.
ADA REQUIREMENTS FOR HISTORIC PROPERTIES & ALTERATIONS
Registered historic sites may be under other restrictions that make barrier removal more challenging. National Historic Landmarks and properties with local historic commission or other designations may be prohibited from making certain accessibility improvements without review and approval by authorities. Many historic covenants prevent significant changes to their structure or façades. Others extend restrictions to interiors and colors. Supporting structures in historic districts may require their owners to maintain the design and materials of their façades and sidewalks, even if they are not individually registered. Historic properties may also exist with components other than those prescribed by the ADA, depending on their location, use and specific historic designation.
Similar to new construction and additions, alterations to existing structures may be required to conform with ADA barrier removal provisions and currently adopted building codes. Even after a building has been designed and built, alterations, furniture, storage and other post occupancy changes can result in architectural barriers. Whether an existing property is registered as historic or not, alterations to existing properties may be required to comply with current accessibility standards. If they cannot be achieved, accessibility may have to be improved by alternate means.
SLIP, TRIP, AND FALL INVESTIGATIONS
The Premises Safety team at Robson Forensic is experienced in investigating cases that involve the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of residential, institutional, and commercial premises. We conduct site investigations, perform tests, and review applicable standards and discovery documents to learn facts and form opinions about how and why individuals were injured within the built environment, including those that may be the result of an ADA compliance issue.
Architecture, Construction & Premises Safety Expert
Mark Monteith is a registered architect with extensive experience in the design, construction, and planning of structures and landscapes. His architectural experience includes academic campuses, museums, places of worship, national historic landmarks, theaters, municipal buildings, commercial properties, and residential structures. Over 25 years, Mark’s career included new construction, renovation, and campus and urban planning. His expertise extends to sustainable design, façade and building envelopes, building and site accessibility, construction documentation and administration, project management, and owner representation.