Infocus: the ADA

Aug. 28, 2002
A Long-awaited Update
The world has changed. The ADAAG has not. However, complaints about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) Accessibility Guidelines may be coming to a halt – and soon. Created in 1990, The ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities have recently been revised and the draft of the final guidelines (as of press time) is awaiting the U.S. Access Board’s vote and approval.Since 1994 when the process began, the accessibility guidelines for the ADA and the ABA have been under a microscope, being scrupulously reviewed by the ADAAG Review Advisory Committee from 1994 to 1996. The Access Board then used the committee’s recommendations as the starting point for the development of new guidelines. Once revisions were drafted, the proposed rule underwent a number of public hearings, with over 2,500 public comments received by May 2000. Since that time, the proposed rule has undergone further modifications and in April 2002 was placed on the docket for public review. The up-and-coming revisions have sparked curiosity and perhaps a bit of anxiety. When Buildings interviewed two experts in late July, it was eminently clear that the new ADAAG would be a much improved set of guidelines for commercial building professionals.Improving the UsabilityFor more than 10 years, the ADAAG has generated questions and sometimes controversy. “There are complicated situations that arise, where it’s not very clear what the law really requires,” says Ron Burton, vice president, Advocacy and Research, at the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International, Washington, D.C. The ambiguities of the current ADAAG have resulted in more than confusion – sometimes even leading to lawsuits. To make the guidelines clearer and more user-friendly, the Advisory Committee recommended reorganizing and simplifying the document. “The original ADAAG grew out of an old version of the ANSI A117.1 standard [from the American National Standards Institute, headquartered in Washington, D.C.] and it wasn’t organized in the most logical way. It had very awkward numbering,” says Lawrence G. Perry, AIA, Silver Spring, MD-based codes consultant for BOMA International.Verbiage in the current guidelines included “recommendations” vs. “requirements,” causing greater difficulty during interpretation. “The Advisory Committee reorganized and put everything into a more logical format, but also reworded everything so it is written in mandatory language,” Perry explains. “As part of the review process, the Committee recommended that the Guidelines be written like a building code or standard, which people involved in the construction and building industry are familiar with – and it also makes it clearer as a legal document.”Mirroring Codes and StandardsThe new organization of the ADAAG, more consistent with the model building codes and industry standards in format and arrangement, will facilitate easier interpretation. Additionally, many differences between the ADAAG and the International Building Code (IBC) and the A117.1 standard have been reconciled. “As early as 1996, work was under way to revise the IBC and the A117.1 standard to match what we expected to be in the new ADA guidelines,” Perry says.Due to the lengthy federal rulemaking process, code-making bodies were able to anticipate the ADAAG final rule and make changes to building codes and standards accordingly. “There have been changes to the model building codes this year that are consistent with the proposed rule/revisions coming out of the Access Board,” says Burton. “So, regardless of when the Access Board does issue a final rule, a lot of the things that it has included in these [ADAAG] revisions will be included in the building code early in 2003, and the decision on the [International Building] code will be made in September 2002.”Debate on New GuidelinesSince the publishing of the proposed rule in 1999, special interest groups, individuals, and organizations have made suggestions for improvements, and debated changes to the current ADAAG. From 1999 to 2002, BOMA International voiced concerns over the revised ADAAG requirements for visual alarms. Under the current guidelines, visual alarms should be located in public and common areas such as corridors, conference rooms, and large, open plan work areas to alert hearing-impaired occupants of an emergency. Under the proposal, facilities would have been required to place visual alarms in every single, individual office. “An ally of ours, the Epilepsy Foundation, was strongly concerned about it too, because every space in the workplace was going to have a flashing light, and there was a concern that that would lead to increased incidence of seizures for persons with photosensitivity,” Perry explains.Taking these concerns seriously, the Access Board modified the proposed ADAAG and when the draft final guidelines were published in April 2002, it was noted that facilities must have visual alarms in public and common areas, as stated in current guidelines, and that new alarm systems simply be designed so they can accommodate the future installation of additional visual appliances.The Effects of a New ADAAG Curiosity about how new guidelines and changes to existing ones will affect building owners and facilities managers posed significant questions during public hearings and the period of public comment. Charged with enforcing the ADAAG for Buildings and Facilities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will conduct a separate rulemaking, probably after the revised guidelines have been published by the Access Board. The new guidelines will not take effect until the DOJ publishes a Final Rule to adopt them.According to Perry, “One of the big concerns is [that once] the Access Board publishes this new rule, which has some major technical changes, what will the impact be to existing buildings that comply with the old guidelines?” The Access Board has consistently communicated that dealing with these situations is the responsibility of the DOJ. “I think that the message has been pretty clearly delivered to the Department of Justice that it needs to be real careful with this second wave and how it might impact existing buildings. We’re optimistic that there will be something like a grandfather clause in the new DOJ rule,” Perry says.The final draft of the ADAAG may be voted on by the U.S. Access Board as early as this month. It will then be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review. For more information on the ADAAG, contact BOMA International ( J. Madsen ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

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