A Closer Look at Some Common ADA Exemption Myths

Published July 30, 2020

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically exempts religious organizations and private clubs, but there are numerous myths regarding other scenarios in which the ADA doesn't apply. For example, building owners may be lulled into thinking that local ordinances can override ADA compliance; they can't. We set straight a few common myths.

You may be able to get an exemption

Only religious organizations and private clubs are exempt, although as stated by Connecticut’s General Assembly, nonreligious entities organizing in religious facilities may be subject to the ADA. What’s more, having a valid exemption does not imply places of worship and private clubs should be complacent. The benefits of accessibility go beyond just people with disabilities. For example, a ramp is useful for a parent with a stroller as well as a person who uses a wheelchair.

ADA compliance can be waived by local building inspectors

Standard building inspections issued by local jurisdictions do not override ADA compliance. "Although local building departments sometimes can waive building code requirements, a local waiver does not affect the entity’s obligation to comply with the ADA Standards," according to U.S. Access Board, since the ADA is a federal law. A local government entity can add additional requirements beyond the scope of the national legislation, but it can't override federal rules.

ADA compliance is always expensive

The ADA is a practical piece of legislation based on common-sense accommodations. It acknowledges that adjusting existing structures is more expensive than making new construction accessible. Per the Southwest ADA Center, the government endeavors to help public structures and organizations come up to code with Federal tax incentives that offset the cost of ADA compliance. While that doesn’t eliminate the cost, tax breaks can significantly reduce expenses.

Out-of-compliance buildings can be "grandfathered"

"Because the ADA is a civil rights law and not a building code, older facilities are often required to be accessible to ensure that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate," as stated in ADA Checklist for Existing Facilities (PDF). That said, there is greater leniency in terms of accessibility compliance in historic buildings.

The Whole Design Building Guide asserts that the Americans with Disabilities Accessibility Guidelines provides "alternative solutions that allow retention of original historic fabric (such as narrow corridors)."

Complaints and lawsuits are frivolous

"The overwhelming majority of the complaints received by the Justice Department have merit," according to Myths and facts About The Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is a common misconception that individuals and organizations file complaints and suits at a whim, when they are often a last resort at obtaining basic access to public goods and services.