occupants may not have the protection they need.
The first step is to conduct a risk assessment. Just
because you’ve received a clean bill of health from a
building inspection doesn’t mean that you’re fully in
compliance with ADA, says attorney Brian Muse, a partner at the law firm LeClairRyan. As there are a number
of accessibility and life safety codes, ask a professional to
help you evaluate your facility so nothing is overlooked.
“Go beyond a basic safety audit and specifically look
for code compliance once a year,” recommends Chuck
Wilson, executive director for the National Systems
Contractors Association. “Work with a fire or life safety
consultant, your local AHJ, or the integrator who con-
ducts your system testing.”
Otherwise, ask HR to notify you when a new hire
needs accommodations, suggests Muse. A major build-
out, renovation, or change in your building population
should also prompt a second look.
Despite the breadth of accessibility considerations, buildings usually fall short in a handful of areas. Review these five
factors to see if your property might have a critical gap.
1) Limiting Mass Notification
You may test your fire alarms routinely, but how will
a person who is deaf know there’s an emergency? What
happens if you use your alarms for other crises, such as
chemical spills, an active shooter, or a storm warning?
Those with hearing impairments are at a disadvantage if
they can’t distinguish what type of emergency is at hand or
receive specific instructions on how to respond. The same
could be said if you only use written messages – you may
not be reaching those with vision loss.
“You don’t want to rely on a single means of communi-
cation,” says Dick Bauer, vice president of sales of NOTI-
FIER, a manufacturer of mass notification solutions. “You
need multiple avenues to catch people’s attention.”
If your building is equipped with mass notification,
evaluate the placement of devices. Many companies
cover public spaces such as corridors and lobbies but
neglect employee areas, notes Wilson. These are zones
where audible and visual alarms could significantly
expand your reach.
Have you read the full Americans with Disabilities Act?
You may be surprised that
the law doesn’t outline
specific measures that are
required in all buildings –
there’s no checklist for
wheelchair ramps, areas of
refuge, visual notification
appliances, hand railings,
audible alarms, emergency
lighting, stair descent devices,
Braille signage, or egress
widths. It’s up to property
managers to determine
which accommodations are
necessary in their facility.
Read on to understand the
legal context for ADA and how it applies
to buildings accessible to the public.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of
1990 provides “a clear and comprehensive
HOW ADA APPLIES TO BUILDING OWNERS
national mandate for the elimination of
discrimination against individuals with
disabilities.” It protects people with a
range of impairments that affect major life
activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking,
standing, speaking, reading, communicating,
According to the act, “a major life activity
includes the operation of a major bodily
function, including but not limited to
functions of the immune system, normal
cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder,
neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory,
endocrine, and reproductive functions.” The
mandate does not apply to people with
transitory impairments that occur for six
months or less.
While not a building code, ADA
nonetheless acknowledges the economic
impact property owners may need to
shoulder to ensure all occupants have equal
access. Occupants and visitors have a right
to reasonable accommodations, which
includes “making existing facilities used by
employees readily accessible to and usable
by individuals with disabilities.”
Discrimination can occur when there
is “a failure to remove architectural and
communication barriers that are structural
in nature.” The language applies to new
construction and alterations in public
accommodations and commercial facilities.
Owners are required to make provisions
unless they represent an undue hardship,
meaning “an action requiring significant
difficulty or expense.” Factors that could
impose unattainable expectations may range
from initial costs, financial resources of the
liable entity, number of persons employed,
effect of costs on resources, and facility
type and location. Owners may also be
exempt if they can prove it is “structurally
impracticable” to make modifications.
In the absence of these obstacles, however,
owners must make every effort to ensure
individuals with vision, speech, mobility,
hearing, and cognitive impairments can
navigate their buildings with ease.