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Public Buildings for ALL Members of the Public

Many of our clients have physical disabilities that limit their mobility.  Because of federal law, handicap access to public buildings is much improved, though not perfect.

A Federal Civil Rights Law for the Disabled

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities, such as buying an item at the store, watching a movie in a theater, enjoying a meal at a local restaurant, exercising at the local health club or having the car serviced at a local garage. The law requires most business and public facilities (regardless of size) to provide reasonable accommodation and physical access for all customers, clients and members of the public, even those with disabilities.

To meet the goals of the ADA, the law established requirements for private businesses of all sizes. The first of which went into effect in 1992. Because many smaller businesses cannot afford to make major renovations to their businesses to provide accessibility to the disabled, the ADA’s requirements for facilities built before 1993 that are less strict than for ones built after early 1993 or modified after early 1992.

Facilities, first occupied or constructed on or after January 26, 1993, must meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Alterations to facilities, spaces or elements (including renovations) on or after January 26, 1992, also must comply with the Standards. Renovations or modifications fall under the law when they affect the usability of the element or space (such as installing a new display counter or moving walls in a sales area). Simple maintenance is not considered an alteration by the ADA.

Courts Need to be Accessible Too

A Supreme Court of the United States case in 2004 illustrates the issues the disabled encounter in getting access to public buildings.  The case involved, ironically enough, access to courthouses.  The court ruled the ADA applied to state buildings, including courthouses, and that six Tennessee residents had their rights denied because the buildings were inaccessible.

One plaintiff was George Lane, who was unable to walk after a 1997 car accident in which he was accused of driving on the wrong side of the road and was charged with reckless driving. He appeared at a Pol County courthouse that had no elevator and was forced to drag himself up two flights of stairs to attend a hearing. He refused to do so for a second hearing and was arrested for failing to appear, even though he had told the judge beforehand of his situation.

Beverly Jones, another plaintiff, was a certified court reporter who used a wheelchair due to paralysis caused by a broken back she suffered in a 1984 car crash. She found it extremely difficult to get into a number of courthouses and had to be carried into buildings without wheelchair access. She eventually sued the state for $250,000, saying her livelihood was threatened by the lack of wheelchair access.

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In the “Jim Crow” era, African Americans were denied equal access to public buildings and federal laws put an end to that. The ADA is intended so the physically disabled have equal rights of access to public buildings too. If you have any questions to disability access laws, contact our office.