U.S. DOJ Adopts New ADA Accessibility Standards
An overview of recently adopted regulations and their impact on vertical-transportation accessibility
On July 26, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act/Architectural Barriers Act (ADA/ABA) Accessibility Guidelines as the enforceable 2010 Standards for Accessible Design for ADA Titles II and III. These titles regulate state and local governments, as well as public accommodations and commercial facilities. Early compliance with the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design was permitted as of September 15, 2010, the day the regulations were published in the Federal Register. Compliance will be required in all new facilities as of March 15, 2012.
The technical requirements of the accessibility guidelines are also enforced through the ABA for buildings and facilities that are built, altered or leased by the U.S. General Services Administration, Postal Service or Department of Defense. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the fourth federal agency regulated by the ABA, has yet to adopt the ABA Accessibility Guidelines.
The ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines are the product of a Federal Advisory Committee that was appointed by the U.S. Access Board in the mid 1990s. This advisory committee recommended changes to the existing ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and helped make the federal access provisions more consistent with the access requirements in effect in U.S. state and local building codes. In particular, it aligned federal provisions with the ANSI A117.1 accessibility standard and the building codes that later evolved into the International Code Council (ICC) International Building Code.
After years of deliberation, the advisory committee benefited from concurrent codes and standards development by the ANSI A117 committee and organizations supporting development of model building codes. The groups involved in the federal and building code initiatives include many of the same professionals who worked on the coordination of ADA requirements and in state and local building codes. They concluded that the requirements for an accessible elevator, ramp or kitchen sink should be the same, whether they are enforced under federal civil rights law or dictated by a local building inspector under the general health and welfare mandates of a local building code. As a result, the ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines published in 2004 were substantially similar to the accessibility requirements in the ICC/ANSI A117.1 standard and in The International Building Code.
Edward Donoghue, managing director of the National Elevator Industry, Inc. (NEII), represented NEII’s interests at meetings of the ADAAG Federal Advisory Committee, the Accessible Route Subcommittee, and the ANSI A117 Accredited Standards Committee. As a result, the federal and building code requirements for elevators were created to have approximately 97% uniformity. This is a significant improvement from just a few months ago, when the federal civil-rights law referenced a 20-year-old ADAAG. However, the remaining 3% needs to be addressed. This includes how the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design differ from common industry practice as reflected in the U.S. state and local building codes.
While the elimination of differences between the federal accessibility requirements and those enforced by local building officials is a welcomed advance, the differences that remain are of great concern to our industry. This is particularly true for destination-dispatch systems (DDS), referred to as “destination-oriented elevators” in the ADA standards and ICC/ANSI A117.1. The latter document has requirements for a “function button” marked with an accessibility symbol and three-dot raised triangle that activates the tones and voice-annunciation capabilities on a DDS to make it usable for blind and visually impaired people. The DOJ’s new standards have no such provision. This was not an oversight on the part of the federal regulators.
To put it simply, the feds don’t much like our DDSes. In its Guidance on the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the DOJ states:
“Commenters requested that the department impose a moratorium on the installation of destination-oriented elevators arguing that this new technology presents wayfinding challenges for persons who are blind or have low vision.”
The department did not go that far but did decide to disallow the function button on installations covered by the ADA, which includes virtually all pending installations in the U.S. In effect, the DOJ expects every DDS hall-call station and every car to “talk” every minute the building is open and the elevators are used:
“Section 407.2.1.5 of the 2010 standards allows destination-oriented elevators to not provide call buttons with visible signals to indicate when each call is registered and when each call is answered provided that visible and audible signals, compliant with 407.2.2 of the 2010 standards, indicating which elevator car to enter, are provided. This will require the responding elevator car to automatically provide audible and visible communication so that the system will always verbally and visually indicate which elevator car to enter.” [Emphases added.]
As chairman of the Accessible Route Subcommittee of the ADAAG Advisory Committee and a member of the A117 Accredited Standards Committee that approved function buttons for DDSes, my understanding is that some committee members felt that requiring a visually impaired person to take the additional step of pushing a function key to activate certain accessibility features is inherently discriminatory. Thus, the buttons should be prohibited under federal civil-rights law. This position is flawed on two levels.
First, the DOJ standards already require some people to take additional steps to use certain features in a building. For example, the standards specify that Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) may have speech prompts for blind people that are available through an “industry standard connector”; the result is that new ATMs have headphone jacks that access the speech features of the machines. Not only must a blind person locate the jack on the face of the machine, he or she must bring his or her own headphones to use the system. Similarly, the standards do not require many buildings with public telephones to provide a teletypewriter (TTY) for people with hearing impairments. Instead, many are required to provide only a shelf with an electrical outlet and a phone jack so that a deaf person can bring his or her own TTY from home to call a friend from the building’s public phone location. The destination-dispatch function button permitted by ICC/ANSI A117.1 is hardly onerous by comparison.
Far more critically, the destination-oriented function key makes the elevator system easier to use for people who are blind or visually impaired, and the federal decision to remove this feature makes these systems far less accessible for people with visual disabilities.
In a high-rise office building, hundreds of passengers will be using the DDS within very short peak times. Most passengers will use the silent visual cues provided by the hall-call station and the lanterns at the hoistway doors to take the correct elevator to their destination floors. A blind employee arriving at that time can push the function key, and the system will announce the proper car he or she should take through tone and voice annunciation. When the car arrives, it will be the only one announcing its arrival with tonal and voice indicators. The system accommodates these unique needs to navigate the system and enter the correct car to his or her destination.
Now imagine that same visually impaired employee arriving during rush hour to a crowded elevator lobby where the system satisfies the DOJ requirement by always verbally announcing what it is doing. The hall-call station is incessantly talking and delivering tones to passengers; discerning the proper car can be difficult for visually impaired users to navigate. Even if the disabled person understands “Car C” is the one that will take him or her to the desired floor, in hectic environments where people are chatting, other cars are arriving and announcing their arrival with tone and voice annunciation, and differentiating between them will be a challenge. The result is that the system our industry developed to make elevators functional for blind and visually impaired people has become inaccessible and frustrating for the very people it is meant to serve.
In its guidelines, the DOJ concluded its comments on destination-oriented elevators by promising:
“The department will monitor the use of this new technology and work with the Access Board so that there is not a decrease in accessibility as a result of permitting this new technology to be installed.”
NEII hopes both the DOJ and the U.S. Access Board will follow through with this promise and realize that in a misguided attempt to impose some type of “equity” for people with visual disabilities, the new standards have created the “decrease in accessibility” it feared for the very people the ADA is meant to protect.