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Overview of Federal Laws and Guidelines Pertaining to Accessibility
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In an effort to help untangle the legal requirements and provide some direction, we have summarized the general purpose of the laws and guidelines. It is important to note that while what is covered under the laws does not change, the technical standards are still evolving.
We have also provided links to resources with more detailed information. One of the best resources is Fair Housing Accessibility First sponsored by HUDThey have a dedicated help line to answer your questions: 1-888-341-7781.
Applying to all facilities open to the general public (commercial and government buildings, built with private or public money):
The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted by Congress in 1990 and updated several times, most recently in 2010. The law protects the civil rights of persons with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, transportation and telecommunication. It covers policies and services. In addition, any spaces open to the general public must be accessible to people with disabilities. (Unless the residences are part of public housing operated by local or state governments, this law applies only to the design of the sales or rental office.) The idea is that people with disabilities should be able to make use of and enjoy the same public facilities as everyone else.
Information Line: 1-800-514-0301 or 1-800-514-0383 (TDD)
The Access Board's ADA Accessibility Guidelines serve as the minimum baseline for the standards. The guidelines and standards are very similar, but only the standards have legal authority. However, the guidance provided is relevant to the standards. In its last update, the Board harmonized the ADA guidelines with the ABA guidelines for federal facilities and published them jointly. In addition, the Board and the International Code Council (ICC) worked cooperatively to harmonize the ADA and ABA guidelines and access provisions in the International Building Code (IBC).
Applying to all multi-dwelling facilities with 4 or more units built after March, 1991:
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions.
The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 amends Title VIII of the Fair Housing Act by specifically extending protection to persons with a disability and families with children. Guidelines were developed to provide builders and developers with technical guidance on how to comply with the specific accessibility requirements.
The FHAA also includes design related requirements, some applying to rental housing and to condos. There are detailed design requirements for:
Every unit of the building if the building has an elevator
Only ground floor units if the building does not have an elevator
The housing must comply with the following seven design guidelines of the Fair Housing Amendments Act: (There are some limited exemptions, such as when the building is in an extreme natural setting such as a floodplain.)
1. At least one entrance must be on route that is accessible to and from parking and transportation.
2. Public and Common-Use Areas must meet accessibility requirements for the various features, such as public rest rooms, mail boxes, laundry machines, swimming pools, etc.
3. All doors designed to allow passage into and within all premises must be wide enough to allow passage by persons using wheelchairs (32 inches clear).
4. There must be an accessible route into and through the dwelling units.
5. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls must be placed in easily reached and accessible locations throughout the premises within the dwelling unit.
6. Bathroom walls must be reinforced to allow easy installation of grab bars around toilet, tub, shower stall and shower seat if needed in the future.
7. Kitchens and bathrooms must be laid out so that a person using a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.
The American National Standards Institute is a private organization that publishes standards governing the design of accessible elements, spaces and features. It is a voluntary standard until a jurisdiction adopts it into code or law. Local building codes frequently refer to these standards. State or local governments can use these standards to meet ADA requirements. The standards can be purchased at:
When federal money is used to design, build, alter or lease, there are different laws and standards.
If the US Government builds, alters or leases a building, the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 requires specific standards to be followed. It marks one of the first efforts to ensure access to the built environment by people with disabilities. Four Federal agencies are responsible for the standards: the Department of Defense, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.
The Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards sets standards for facility accessibility by physically handicapped persons for Federal and federally funded facilities. These standards are to be applied during the design, construction, and alteration of buildings and facilities to the extent required by the Architectural Barriers Act.
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